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U.S. Supreme Court Says Consent Decree With State Is Enforceable

 
 

HLD, v. 32, n. 3 (March 2004)

U.S. Supreme Court Says Consent Decree With State Is Enforceable

The Eleventh Amendment does not bar enforcement of a consent decree entered into by state officials, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled January 14 in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. "Federal courts are not reduced to approving consent decrees and hoping for compliance. Once entered, a consent decree may be enforced," the opinion said.

The case stems from a class action filed by parents on behalf of their children against the Texas Department of Health, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and various agency heads and employees in their official capacities for allegedly failing to provide federally mandated Medicaid benefits under the state's version of the early and periodic screening, diagnostic, and treatment services (EPSDT) program.

The federal district court dismissed the action against the two state agencies on Eleventh Amendment grounds. The state officials remained in the suit and the district court certified a class of more than 1 million Texas children entitled to EPSDT services. Plaintiffs and the state officials eventually entered into a consent decree, which the district court approved. The consent decree set forth a comprehensive plan for implementing the federal statute that was far more detailed than the statute itself.

Two years later, plaintiffs sought to enforce the consent decree in federal district court, alleging the state officials had not fully complied with the decree. The officials argued that the decree was unenforceable under the Eleventh Amendment. The district court rejected this argument and ordered the parties to outline possible remedies.

On interlocutory appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed. According to the appeals court, the Eleventh Amendment barred the action because, regardless of whether the EPSDT program complied with the decree, plaintiffs failed to establish that the program violated the federal Medicaid Act.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding the decree is enforceable under Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). The Eleventh Amendment prohibits individuals from suing a state absent its consent, but Ex parte Young recognized an exception, holding that courts could award prospective injunctive relief against state officials acting in violation of federal law.

According to the state officials, the Ex parte Young exception should be construed narrowly in the context of consent decrees entered into by state representatives that could bind state governments to more commitments than federal law requires. Otherwise, they argued, a state in full compliance with federal law could remain subject to federal oversight through actions to enforce the consent decree.

"We disagree with this view of the Eleventh Amendment," Kennedy wrote. "The decree is a federal court order that springs from a federal dispute and furthers the objectives of federal law." While noting that the consent decree at issue required the state to take certain steps not specifically required by the Medicaid Act, the Court said enforcing the decree vindicated an agreement that the state officials reached to comply with federal law.

The Court acknowledged legitimate concerns that remedies outlined in consent decrees could "improperly deprive future officials of their designated legislative and executive powers" and also "lead to federal court oversight of state programs for long periods of time even absent an ongoing violation of federal law." Theses concerns, however, can be addressed sufficiently by a court's equitable powers and discretion under federal civil procedure rules to modify a decree when circumstances change, the opinion noted.

"The federal court must exercise its equitable powers to ensure that when the objects of the decree have been attained, responsibility for discharging the State's obligations is returned promptly to the State and its officials," Kennedy said.

Because the Court found that Ex parte Young applied, it did not address plaintiff's other argument that the state had waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Frew v. Hawkins, No. 02-628 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2004).

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