Court Refuses to Extend "Sovereign Immunity" Doctrine

Federal law requires states, as a condition of receiving money to help those with developmental disabilities, to establish a "protection and advocacy" system to protect the interests of people with disabilities. When state officials in Virginia refused to turn over records during an investigation into deaths and injuries at the state's mental hospitals, it violated federal law. But there was some question about whether they would be held accountable.  

The Rehnquist Court regrettably rehabilitated the idea of "sovereign immunity" -- that is, that states could not be sued without the consent of the citizens. But there has always been a long-standing exception to sovereign immunity: Ex Parte Young, which held that state officials were not actually part of the state when acting contrary to federal law. The question in today's case was whether Virgina officials could be sued under Ex Parte Young. This case is unusual because the state officials were being sued by an independent state agency rather than by a citizen of the state or by the federal government.

Today, the Court held 6-2 that the Virginia officials in this case were not protected by "sovereign immunity."   Through Scalia, the majority argued that the suit would clearly be permitted by Ex Parte Young if brought by a private organization, and "there is no warrant in our cases for making the validity of an

Ex parte Young

action turn on the identity of the plaintiff." For anyone who still believes against all evidence that Roberts and Alito are closet moderates, they were the only justices in this case who believed that the "dignity" of the state of Virginia should trump the real dignity of the citizens who are likely dead today and those who might be threatened in the future because of adequate administration of state facilities.  

In my view, given the highly dubious nature of the "sovereign immunity" cases to begin with, anything that limits their application is a good thing.