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Justices hear first case of term concerning state agreements

By Bill Mears
CNN


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court kicked off the first case of its new term by offering sharp skepticism in response to claims by Texas officials that the state has constitutional immunity from a consent decree.

At issue is the ability of federal courts to enforce legal settlements made by state officials.

The 11th Amendment provides sovereign immunity to states, unless they voluntarily and unequivocally waive it. There are legal exceptions, and one question before the justices is whether such exceptions apply in this case.

The Supreme Court in recent years has offered a good deal of deference to states rights, but this case presents interesting questions about the power of individuals to hold states accountable in legal agreements.

RELATED
Supreme Court docket: Frew v. Hawkins  (FindLaw)external link

The case involves a class action lawsuit filed against Texas officials, alleging improper medical care for about 1.5 million poor children covered under the federal Medicaid program. Linda Frew was among a group of parents that claimed the state failed to provide a broad range of preventive and early screening services. The program was designed to identify and treat pediatric medical problems before they became more serious.

States that sign up for the Medicaid co-op program receive at least 50 percent federal reimbursement, but must comply with its myriad regulations, including federal oversight and jurisdiction when disputes arise. Social services officials in Texas, with the approval of the state attorney general, agreed in 1996 to a court-approved consent decree over the claims by parents. The decree required specific compliance in a broad range of procedures.

But Frew and others went back to court two years later, alleging Texas was failing to live up to its agreement. While not admitting liability, Texas officials said it had made numerous changes in the health care program over the years.

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A federal appeals court agreed with the Texas attorney general that the state was immune from such lawsuits, and that courts could not fully enforce the agreement, since no federal law was broken. Lawyers for the children said legal settlements, even if made by the states, should be binding, especially when they waive any immunity privileges.

The justices Monday wasted little time going after Texas Solicitor General Edward Cruz, who argued, "What the decree requires, the state is doing. There is no violation of federal law."

Justice Anthony Kennedy was incredulous. "You have an obligation to show the requirements of the consent degree ... are overly burdensome," he said. "And you haven't done that."

Cruz also claimed state officials had no authority to waive their immunity when entering into the consent decree. He argued, "The state doesn't have the right to negotiate away its power," since the legislature never granted them that power.

That brought a lengthy exchange with Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who questioned whether current state officials can refuse to comply with a negotiated settlement entered years before.

Susan Zinn, attorney for the Frew family, said "all the state officials were unanimous" when reaching the settlement and argued it would be "unfair" for Texas to go back later and claim immunity from enforcement.

But Cruz said the state made significant improvements to its health care program, and should not be forced to comply under threat of a lawsuit.

That prompted Justice John Paul Stevens to ask, "The state made these changes because the agreement required them to do it. That's coercive?"

The case is Frew v. Hawkins (02-0628).


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