(CN) – A 30-year legal battle over how Idaho cares for its indigent, mentally disabled children flared up anew Wednesday, as the 9th Circuit ruled that a lower court had determined compliance prematurely.
In 1980, a class of indigent, mentally and emotionally disabled children and their representative claimed that the state had neglected their care. After nearly three decades, three consent decrees, four appeals to the 9th Circuit and countless claims on noncompliance by the plaintiffs, the District Court held a “final compliance hearing” in 2006 to finish the case once and for all.
After ordering Idaho to make several changes, Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the state had complied with the majority of the 252 “action items” laid out in the latest order and vacated the consent decree.
The federal appeals panel in Seattle nearly apologized to Winmill in reversing his decision Wednesday, recognizing that the judge had “expended a great deal of time and effort wrestling with the attempted enforcement of these consent decrees for at least the last thirteen years.”
Nonetheless, the panel found that Winmill should not have required the plaintiffs to prove contempt on the part of the state during the compliance hearing. The burden for showing substantial compliance with a consent degree clearly rests with the defendant, according to the 21-page decision.
“Rather than requiring the defendants to demonstrate substantial compliance by a preponderance of the evidence, the court required the plaintiffs to show by clear and convincing evidence that, first, the defendants had ‘violated the action items beyond substantial compliance’ and, second, ‘that the violation was not based on good faith and reasonable interpretation of the judgment,'” Judge William Canby wrote for the unanimous, three-judge panel (emphasis in original). “That standard was reiterated many times by the District Court in its findings. The District Court never stated that the defendants bore or had sustained the burden of showing substantial compliance. Thus, whether the district court’s findings were phrased as failures of the plaintiffs to sustain their burden of proof, or as statements that the defendants had substantially complied, the findings were all the products of the civil contempt burden and standard of proof.”
Canby added that the “employment of the contempt burden and standard of proof was improper for a determination of substantial compliance that permits the consent decrees to be vacated, and that it had sufficiently prejudicial effects on the findings and conclusions of the district court so that its order vacating the decrees must be reversed.”