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,"
Because the Court found that Ex parte Young applied, it
did not address plaintiff's other argument that the state had waived its Eleventh
Frew v. Hawkins, No. 02-628 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2004).