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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

§ 1983 and the 11th Amendment

I wrote last week about Tyler v. Commonewealth of Massachusetts, the lawsuit by a woman contesting a state court order forcing her to engage in family law matters with the convicted rapist who fathered her child. A federal district court dismissed the § 1983 action. One of the cited reasons was the Eleventh Amendment, a decision I said last week was wrong. Here is why.

It is true that the original complaint impermissibly named the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as defendant. But one overlooked aspect of this jurisprudence is that the inability to sue a state, at least on a constitutional violation, is a matter of the text of § 1983, not the Eleventh Amendment. SCOTUS has twice held that a state (or state agency) is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983; the ordinary meaning of person does not include a sovereign and Congress did not provide any text or history to suggest differently. In fact, it seems clear that under either the prevailing congruence-and-proportionality analysis or Justice Scalia's "enforce means enforce" approach, § 1983 is valid § 5 legislation. There is perfect congruence-and-proportionality between § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment rights being enforced. And Scalia has acknowledged § 1983 as the main example of permissible legislation that creates a remedy for existing constitutional rights. So the reason the plaintiff could not sue the Commonwealth is that the Commonwealth is not a person subject to suit or liability under the applicable substantive law. This approach also has the benefit of making clear that this is all a defect in the merits of the claim--the plaintiff sued a defendant who is not subject to the duties or liabilities under that substantive law.

The other problem with the Court's analysis is more fundamentally wrong. The plaintiff moved to amend the complaint in response to the motion, seeking to substitute the justices of the Superior Court (the trial court) as defendant. And since the plaintiff sought an injunction preventing current and future enforcement of the state court orders, this seems like it would be permissible under Ex Parte Young as an action against a responsible officer seeking prospective relief from an ongoing violation.

Amazingly, however, the district court held that Young did not apply. Tyler was not seeking prospective relief because the "sentence complained of has been imposed and is now an historical fact." But this seems to misunderstand what it means for relief to be "prospective." Yes, the challenged order is already entered. But the plaintiff's argument is that the order is presently causing her constitutional harm and will continue to cause her constitutional harm in the future. The injunction she seeks is to halt future enforcement of that state-court judgment. If that is not prospective, I am not sure what is. Under the court's apparent definition, no relief is prospective--it would be just as easy for a court in an action challenging the constitutionality of a statute (the typical Ex Parte Young case) to say  "the statute complained of has been enacted and is now an historical fact." The issue should not be the timing of the complained-of legal rule, but the effect of that rule and when the relief sought will take effect.

There are cases that distinguish "purely prospective" injunctions from other injunctions. But those are Younger cases; they hold that an action that seeks to enjoin future enforcement of a law without interfering with a pending prosecution are not barred by Younger. (Wooley v. Maynard is a good example). This has nothing to do with whether an injunctive is prospective for Ex Parte Young purposes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 26, 2013 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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Comments

Do we know if she re-filed in the circuit court for injunctive relief since the federal circuit denied her 1983 protection? I'm a bit surprised at Hon. Stearns' interpretation of Young here.

Posted by: Brooke | Jul 30, 2014 10:28:44 AM

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