Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court appeared split Tuesday over whether a California couple "living every parent's nightmare" can sue city officials for damages after failing to get off a list of known or suspected child abusers.
The justices refused to offer any sympathetic thoughts on the plight of either the parents in question or the city, sticking strictly to the complex, rather dry legal arguments.
At issue is whether the list -- known as the Child Abuse Central Index -- violates the constitutional protection of due process because those on it are not given a "fair opportunity" to challenge the allegations against them.
Los Angeles County officials say they should not have to pay any damages because although the county sheriff's office investigated and placed the couple on the registry, any constitutional violation is a state, not local matter.
"What you are saying is that a state agent or a municipality can continue to ignore a constitutional violation?" a skeptical Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked an attorney for the city.
"But how can the city have caused the violation in the absence of a city policy, custom, or practice" dealing with accused sex offenders, countered Chief Justice John Roberts.
A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the parents, describing a "nightmarish encounter" with the system after Wendy and Craig Humphries were accused by their 15-year-old daughter of child abuse in 2001. The girl had stolen the family car and driven to Utah to stay with her biological mother and stepfather. She had resisted living with Craig and his family in Valencia, California, and had told her biological mother she had been abused for several months.
After a hospital exam found the girl had been a victim of "non-accidental trauma," the Humphrieses were arrested on felony charges of torture.
The family's two other children were removed from school without a warrant and placed in protective custody. The younger children denied any abuse by their parents, and the Humphries continue to deny all the allegations.
When an initial investigation report was completed by police, the Humphrieses were listed on the Child Abuse Central Index.
However, a subsequent probe -- which included the family doctor testifying he had examined the girl on repeated occasions and had seen no physical abuse -- found the parents "factually innocent" and they were cleared of all charges.
When they next sought to remove their names from the child abuse list, they were told to talk to the detective in the case. But they found the detective had been transferred and there was no procedure to challenge their listing. The state and county continued refusing to remove the Humphrieses designation as "substantiated" child abusers, even after a court ordered the arrest records be sealed and destroyed.
A three-judge San Francisco-based federal appeals court panel last year concluded that "to be accused of child abuse may be our generation's contribution to defamation per se, a kind of moral leprosy," and said that the Humphrieses "were directly affected in their eligibility to work or volunteer at a local community center."
Wendy Humphries was a special education teacher and Craig Humphries was a volunteer soccer coach.
The afternoon arguments at the high court did not delve into the specific child-abuse allegations, or the state's handling of the matter. Rather, the focus remained strictly on the liability of the county, which was sued along with the state for civil rights violations.
Timothy Coates, representing Los Angeles County, seeks a ruling in the county's favor on technical grounds, claiming the Humphrieses had not proven any constitutional violation was the result of "a custom, policy, or practice" by local officials. The county argues the procedures in place are a result of state legislation it was obliged to follow and therefore its liability should be "relatively minor."
Sotomayor repeatedly challenged that legal reasoning. "That's what it [the county] is charged with doing," she said. "It is charged with the responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, and retention of these reports."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the state has taken some subsequent responsibility for its policies related to the Child Abuse Central Index. "The state has already conceded," she said. "It's been adjudicated a constitutional violator, and the state is now saying, you know, we are not going to contest that anymore. Doesn't the state have to do something?"
"They should," said Coates. "If the state drags its feet, the appropriate remedy is to file a motion for an injunction as against the state, to have them issue the proper procedural protections or to remove them from the database. But we submit that at this point, it is not appropriate relief as against the county."
Several justices were not convinced any local policy was violated, which they said would be the only way to trigger county liability.
"If there is no city policy, then the city hasn't done anything wrong" under past high court precedent, Justice Stephen Breyer said bluntly at one point.
Andrew Pincus, representing the Humphrieses, was given few chances to frame the case in more personal terms. "Every day for the past nine years, our [clients] have suffered a violation of their due process rights," he managed to say near the end of the argument, "because they have not been given any sufficient process to show that they are wrongfully included in the index."
This appeal raises the fundamental question of whether an absence of procedures or accountability amounts to a policy. Other jurisdictions nationwide will be closely watching the outcome for its effect on standards of liability. The county here argues it was only enforcing state laws, not local ones. A ruling in its favor might shield municipalities when they implement certain state policies.
The case is Los Angeles County v. Humphries (09-350). A ruling is expected in the next few months