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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why the Supreme Court Should Grant Cert. in Haywood

I think those of us who watch the Supreme Court for a living (or just a hobby) have increasingly come to rely upon SCOTUSblog for inside info about the Court, especially when it comes to upcoming cert. petitions of interest. That being said, there's an important case on the Conference list for next Thursday, June 12, that didn't make Tom Goldstein's "Petitions to Watch" cut (I assume the omission has nothing to do with any judgment as to its significance, but rather with the fact that it's an IFP case, and SCOTUSblog's Conference coverage is only for the paid petitions). As such, I wanted to briefly flag it here.

The case is Haywood v. Drown, No. 07-10374. The question presented (in my words) is whether a state law that requires that damages suits against corrections officers be filed against the state itself in that state's court of claims is unconstitutional, since such a law effectively precludes the maintenance of a § 1983 suit against such defendants in the state courts (because "states" cannot be defendants to 1983 actions).

Last November, the New York Court of Appeals upheld such a law by a 6-1 vote, albeit in an opinion that seems thoroughly inconsistent with the Supreme Court's precedents in this area. I blogged at length about the decision previously, and won't repeat the substantive analysis here. Suffice it to say, I think it would be an incredibly dangerous shift in the Court's jurisprudence on the enforceability of federal law in state courts (which falls under the rubric of the Supremacy Clause) to leave the state court's decision intact.

True, the New York law does not facially discriminate against 1983 claims, and true, the fact that states can't be defendants to 1983 suits is not New York's fault, but is instead the result of the Supreme Court's sovereign immunity jurisprudence. But that shouldn't matter, for purposes of the constitutional question. Where a federal statutory remedy is involved, especially one, such as 1983, that is used to litigate constitutional claims, states don't--and, in my view, shouldn't--get to pick and choose.

Posted by Steve Vladeck on June 4, 2008 at 06:45 PM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, Steve Vladeck | Permalink

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Isn't states' immunity from 1983 suits due to the statutory definition of "person," per Michigan DPS v. Will, rather than "the result of the Supreme Court's sovereign immunity jurisprudence"? The question of constitutional sovereign immunity doesn't come up if the cause of action is limited by statutory construction, right?

Posted by: Justin | Jun 4, 2008 7:02:54 PM

Justin -- If I remember right (and, to be honest, it's been a little while since I carefully looked at Will), the Court's analysis of "person" was largely informed by background sovereign immunity concerns and the idea that in 1871, Congress didn't mean to override common-law sovereign immunity doctrine...

Indeed, I think Brennan made a big deal out of the majority's conflation of these two issues in his dissent, and I think this has a lot to do with why the NY Court of Appeals came out the way it did... doesn't excuse it, but...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Jun 4, 2008 7:10:02 PM

cert granted this morning.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 16, 2008 10:06:30 AM

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