January 11, 2006

"The federalism revolution is on hold, at least for a few months."

Said Gene C. Schaerr, the lawyer who argued that for the states in United States v. Georgia. Linda Greenhouse reports on the brief, unanimous opinion that ducked the interesting federalism questions:
Justice Scalia said that at least to the extent that the inmate's claims indicated that prison officials had violated not only the statute but the Constitution itself, the suit could proceed. The inmate, Tony Goodman, says that prison officials have grossly neglected his needs for mobility and personal hygiene, and that his dependence on a wheelchair has left him excluded from the law library and recreational opportunities.

The decision left very significant questions unanswered, most notably the fate of a disability lawsuit that demonstrates violations of the statute but not of any constitutional provision....

Without doubt, the unanimity and brevity of Justice Scalia's opinion, at only eight pages, papered over deep divisions that have been apparent on the court during years of contention over the boundaries between federal authority and state prerogatives....

Mr. Schaerr suggested that the imminent departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been at the center of the federalism debates, might have prompted the court to decide the new case promptly, and therefore narrowly, and to defer the hard questions.
That sounds accurate. Does Congress have the power to abrogate state sovereign immunity for things other than constitutional violations, as it has tried to do with the Americans With Disabilities Act? That's is a tough question involving the analysis of whether the statute should count as remedies for constitutional violations (as opposed to mere statutory rights). The Supreme Court has been terribly divided over this area of complex doctrine, and it makes sense to put off dealing with it until the new Justice is confirmed.

(Note: I disapprove of the overheated term "federalism revolution." The Supreme Court has shown only a modest interest, in the last 20 years, in providing some judicial enforcement of federalism.)


nunzio said...

I don't think this decision really ducked that much. The case came to the court with only the Plaintiffs pro se complaint in the record and it sounds like it was hard to make heads or tails of most of it.

It'd be tough to read such a complaint and interpret whether the allegations could be construed to violate Title II of the ADA but not the Constitution and then to determine whether Title II as applied to these allegations was a congruent and proportional remedy so that the suit could go forward anyway.

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