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Supreme Court rules on Damages and RLUIPA

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on April 25, 2011 Category: RLUIPA

This past week, the United States Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision on RLUIPA and damages in the case of Sossamon v. Texas (08-1438). In a 6-2 decision, the majority determined that the phrase “appropriate relief” did not clearly advise states that damages were an available remedy for a violation of RLUIPA within the context of the individualized person section of the law. Therefore, damages are not available against the states who are being sued by prisoners for a RLUIPA violation. Many scholars anticipate that the same analysis will reach Court’s within the context of land use claims.

By way of background, Congress has power, under the Constitution, to pass broad or even sweeping laws that directly control how state government officials carry out their duties when those duties have an effect on federal government programs or policies. The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause protects that power over states, even while accepting that, in many ways, states are themselves “sovereign” governments. This, however, is not an unlimited power, and the Supreme Court has been energetic in enforcing limits — especially by narrowing what Congress can require of states when it passes laws to control economic activity that moves across state lines (that is, its authority under the Commerce Clause). The Court has spent considerably less time on the scope of Congress’s power when it enacts laws under the Spending Clause. TheSossamon case focuses on the use of that power to mandate how states and state officials may carry out their duties. There is a broad question, and a narrow question, about Spending Clause authority, and both of those are at least in the background of the mandated health care cases percolating in the various Courts of Appeals that will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

When the entity receiving federal funds under a Spending Clause law is a state, the broad issue becomes whether Congress can compel the state and all who work for it to conform to the federal program, or can it only attach conditions that apply to the state itself, and not to any “third party” state official or employee, because the grant of money is a legal contract only with the state? Because of the way the Sossamon case has developed before the Supreme Court, the Court did not make any attempt to sort out the broad question. AsSossamon has unfolded in the Court, this issue is the one that will was addressed by the Court who held that damages must be clearly spelled out as a remedy by Congress.

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