Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon 473 U.S. 234 (1985)

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The opinions in this case made clear that pennhurst state school and hospital v. halderman (1984) was a water-shed in the Supreme Court's modern treatment of the eleventh amendment. By the same 5–4 division as in Pennhurst, the Court here held that an individual could not obtain relief against a state agency in federal court for harm caused by the agency's violation of the federal rehabilitation act of 1973. In an opinion by Justice lewis f. powell, the majority concluded that California had not waived its sovereign immunity under that amendment, and that Congress, in the act, had not lifted the state's immunity to suit by individual plaintiffs. The latter point carried the Court's restrictive reading of the Eleventh Amendment a step beyond even the Pennhurst opinion: a congressional purpose to lift state immunity, the majority said, cannot be found by implication from a statute's purposes, but only in an explicit statement in the statute itself.

The four dissenters, speaking primarily through Justice william j. brennan, made a vigorous and broad-ranging attack on the majority's recent approach to Eleventh Amendment issues. Justice Brennan, as before, accused the majority of misconceiving the purposes of the Framers in writing Article III, misreading the text and the purposes of the Eleventh Amendment, and generally twisting the fundamental premises of American federalism to "put the federal judiciary in the unseemly position of exempting the states from compliance with laws that bind every other legal actor in our nation."

It seems clear that the shock of Pennhurst persuaded some of the Scanlon dissenters to join Justice Brennan's campaign for a fundamental reorientation of Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence. Four Justices agreed that the recent majority's doctrine "intrudes on the ideal of liberty under law by protecting the States from the consequences of their illegal conduct."

Kenneth L. Karst