April 20, 2011
Supreme Court Action Today
The Court released an opinion this morning covering the subject of sovereign immunity for suits against states. In contrast to the opinion released yesterday, the Court held against allowing a suit to go forward. Today's opinion is Sossamon v. Texas (08-1438), and it answers the question of whether claims against a state for money damages are allowed under language in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, says they are not.
RLUIPA was passed by Congress under authorty of the Spending Clause and Commerce Clause. The Act was a reaction to the Court' earlier holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments. RLUIPA provides a private cause of action and allows “appropriate relief against a government.” Sossamon, as a prisoner, sued Texas because prison policies prevented inmates from attending religious services while on cell restrictions and barring the use of the prison chapel for religious worship. Sossamon wanted an injunction against the policies and monetary damages. The District Court barred the suit under sovereign immunity principles and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Justice Thomas wrote that the clause allowing for "appropriate relief" did not place Texas on unambiguous notice that by taking federal funds under the Act, that it consented to a suit for money damages. Congress' use of the term "appropriate relief" was open-ended and ambiguous, and thus not an unequivocal waiver to suit. The rule is that a waiver will be construed in favor of the soveriegn when there is doubt.
Sossamon raised two other arguments which the Court rejected. The first is that the Act, having passed under the Spending Clause, puts the states on notice that money damages are a possible relief because Spending Clause legislation acts as a contract. Damages are a typical remedy under contract. Justice Thomas notes that precedent does not imply that suits under Spending Clause legislation are in fact suits in contract. His second argument is that the 1986 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 specifically waived state sovereign immunity for violation of provisions of any federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance. That may be, says Justice Thomas, but RLUIPA is not one of those statutes as it prohibits a substantial burden on religious exercise. It is not a statute that unequivocally prohibits discrimination under the 1986 amendments. That's strict construction for you.
For those wondering about the equitable relief part of Sossamon's claims, Texas changed its policies when the suit was filed, rendering those issues moot. The case was decided 6-2 with Justice Kagan abstaining in the decision. Justice Sotomayer wrote a strong dissent joined by Justice Breyer. [MG]