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Opinion recap: Higher legal wall shields states

Raising higher the constitutional barrier to lawsuits seeking money from state governments for violating federal laws, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Congress must declare very explicitly that states give up their immunity to such claims when they accept federal funds for any program.  By a vote of 6-2, the Court barred money damages under a law passed in 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, but the ruling spoke more broadly on the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue when Congress uses its spending power to set up and pay for a federal program.

The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was keyed to two main conclusions: first, the phrase “appropriate relief” in a federal spending law is not explicit enough to take away states’ immunity to money claims, even though that phrase usually is understood to include money damages, and, second, laws passed under the Constitution’s Spending Clause do not operate like a normal contract, when a state government receives the funds, even though ordinarily money damages are a normal remedy for a contract violation.  Both of those constitutional interpretations would apply to any Spending Clause-based program in which states accepted federal funds.

In addition, the opinion, somewhat threateningly, implied that there may be a significant question about Congress’s authority under its spending or commerce-regulation power even to pass the kind of law at issue in this case: a law seeking to compel states to respect the religious rights of persons in prisons and other state-run institutions.   The Court said in a footnote that no one had raised those questions, so the decision did not pass upon them.  That kind of comment, though, could be seen by at least some states as a hint that they might attempt such a challenge to that federal obligation.

The ruling settled a conflict among lower courts on the meaning of the phrase “appropriate relief” in the prisoners’ religious rights law, often known simply as “RLUIPA.” In that law, Congress ordered state and local governments not to impose “substantial burdens” on the religious freedom of institutionalized individuals, such as prisoners or patients, unless the burdens could meet a very strict standard of near-necessity.  It allowed private individuals to sue for violations, and gave them a right to “obtain appropriate relief” against the violating state or agency.

The issue was taken to the Court by Harvey Lee Sossamon III, an inmate in a Texas state prison in Abilene.  A Christian in religious faith, Sossamon sued the state of Texas in 2006, claiming that prison officials barred inmates who were being held in disciplinary confinement from leaving their cells to join in religious services within the prison, even though they could leave the cells for other purposes.  He sought a court order to permit such attendance (the prison later changed its policy and allowed that practice) and he asked for money damages for past violations.  A federal judge and the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the state of Texas had not surrendered its Eleventh Amendment immunity to money damages, so that remedy could not be awarded.  (Disclosure: The law firm that sponsors this blog represented Sossamon in the case; the author of this post operates independently of any law practice.  The case is Sossamon v. Texas, docket 08-1438.)

Justice Thomas’ opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and by Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia.   Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.  Justice Elena Kagan did not take part, because she had filed papers in the case earlier in her prior role as U.S. Solicitor General.

The Thomas opinion, after reciting a series of Supreme Court precedents on the importance of respecting state sovereignty, examined the phrase “appropriate relief” in RLUIPA, and concluded that it was “open-ended and ambiguous about what types of relief it includes,” and thus it could not be understood that states, in accepting federal funds under the Act, had been given adequate notice that they were forfeiting their immunity to money claims.  “Far from clearly identifying money damages, the word ‘appropriate’ is inherently context-dependent,” the opinion said, adding: “The context here — where the [sued party] is a sovereign [state] — suggests, if anything, that monetary damages are not ‘suitable’ or ‘proper,’ ” (words used in dictionary definitions of “appropriate”).

When a law “is susceptible of multiple plausible interpretations, including one preserving immunity, we will not consider a state to have waived its sovereign immunity,” the Court said.

Turning to the argument by Sossamon’s counsel that laws passed under Congress’s spending power operate like an ordinary contract, which permits money damages as a remedy for a breach of that contract, the Court majority said that it had in the past acknowledged “the contract-law analogy,” but added that it had not done so in a case like this.  “In any event,” the majority concluded, “applying ordinary contract principles here would make little sense because contracts with a sovereign are unique.  They do not traditionally confer a right of action for damages to enforce compliance.”

In addition, the majority said, the implied contract argument “cannot be squared with our longstanding rule that a waiver of sovereign immunity must be expressly and unequivocally stated in the text of the relevant statute….It would be bizarre to create an ‘unequivocal statement’ rule and then find that every Spending Clause enactment, no matter what its text, satisfies that rule because it includes unexpressed, implied remedies against the states.”

The Sotomayor-Breyer dissent argued that “general principles” of law, as well as a number of the Court’s own precedents, have made clear that when a law calls for a remedy, that is commonly understood to mean money damages.  That approach, the dissenting opinion said, is so commonly understood that lawmakers usually have to specify that, if they want injunctions or other court-order relief in addition to damages, they have to add those remedies as an alternative to a money award.  All of this history, the dissent said, gave the states more than adequate notice that, when they accepted money in a program specifying that “appropriate relief” was available to remedy violations, they were subjecting themselves to money damages relief.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Higher legal wall shields states, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 20, 2011, 11:05 AM),