I can't remember the last time the Supreme Court justices all agreed in an Eleventh Amendment case, but it happened yesterday in Frew v. Hawkins
(U.S., No. 02-628, Jan. 14, 2004). Bottom line: Texas officials must abide by a consent decree to which they consented in 1996 to increase spending on the Medicaid program's Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) program. Legally, the case involves an interesting question whether federal courts can compel a state to adhere to the terms of such a consent decree consistent with the Eleventh Amendment, which in a number of analgous situations has been held to shield states from federal court actions for money damages. I say it's "interesting" because -- despite the Court's unanimous opinion -- it's an arguable point. In this case, the trial judge rejected Texas' Eleventh Amendment argument. On appeal, however, the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals bought the state's argument. But politically and morally, it's hard to see how Texas' position was anything but crass, cold-hearted, underhanded, and punitive. Here's the syllabus of the Court's opinion:
As a participant in the Medicaid program, Texas must meet certain federal requirements, including that it have an Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) program for children. The petitioners, mothers of children eligible for EPSDT services in Texas, sought injunctive relief against state agencies and various state officials, claiming that the Texas program did not meet federal requirements. The claims against the state agencies were dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds, but the state officials remained in the suit and entered into a consent decree approved by the Federal District Court. In contrast with the federal statute’s brief and general mandate, the decree required state officials to implement many specific proposals. Two years later, when the petitioners filed an enforcement action, the District Court rejected the state officials’ argument that the Eleventh Amendment rendered the decree unenforce-able, found violations of the decree, and directed the parties to submit proposals outlining possible remedies. On interlocutory appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the Eleventh Amend-ment prevented enforcement of the decree because the violations of the decree did not also constitute violations of the Medicaid Act. Held: Enforcement of the consent decree does not violate the Eleventh Amendment.
(a) This case involves the intersection of two areas of federal law: the Eleventh Amendment and the rules governing consent de-crees. The state officials argue that a federal court should not enforce a consent decree arising under Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123, unless it first identifies, at the enforcement stage, a violation of federal law such as the EPSDT statute itself. This Court disagrees. The decree here is a federal court order that springs from a federal dispute and furthers the objectives of federal law. Firefighters v. Cleveland, 478 U. S. 501, 525. The petitioners’ enforcement motion sought a remedy consistent with Ex parte Young and Firefighters and accepted by the state officials when they asked the court to approve the consent decree. Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U. S. 89, in which this Court found Ex parte Young’s rationale inapplicable to suits brought against state officials alleging state-law violations, is distinguishable from this case, which involves a federal decree entered to implement a federal statute. Enforcing the decree vindicates an agreement that the state of-ficials reached to comply with federal law. Federal courts are not reduced to approving consent decrees and hoping for compliance. Once entered, that decree may be enforced. See Hutto v. Finney, 437 U. S. 678.
(b) The state officials and amici state attorneys general express le-gitimate concerns that enforcement of consent decrees can undermine sovereign interests and accountability of state governments. How-ever, when a consent decree is entered under Ex parte Young, the response to their concerns has its source not in the Eleventh Amend-ment but in the court’s equitable powers and in the direction given by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5), which encompasses an equity court’s traditional power to modify its decree in light of changed circumstances. See, e.g., Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, 502 U. S. 367. If a detailed order is required to ensure compliance with a decree for prospective relief that in effect mandates the State to ad-minister a significant federal program, federalism principles require that state officials with front-line responsibility for the program be given latitude and substantial discretion. The federal court must en-sure that when the decree’s objects have been attained, responsibility for discharging the State’s obligations is returned promptly to the State and its officials. The basic obligations of federal law may re-main the same, but the precise manner of their discharge may not. If the State establishes reason to modify the decree, the court should make the necessary changes; otherwise, the decree should be en-forced according to its terms. 300 F. 3d 530, reversed.
This litigation started in 1993, based upon the plaintiffs' claim that Texas has dealt children in desperately poor families a really lousy hand, in violation of their federal-law obligations. If the plaintiffs were right (and I suppose we won't know, technically, since there was no trial and therefore no findings of fact on the underlying claims), it's been over a decade now that these kids have been denied services required by federal law. Perhaps this disgraceful record on children's health is about to come to an end.