Supreme Court skeptical of rejecting civil rights precedent

The Supreme Court is seen on Election Day in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib) (Mariam Zuhaib, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed unlikely to agree to overturn decades of precedent in a case about civil rights lawsuits, a result that would preserve the ability of individuals to use federal law to sue.

The justices had been asked to use a case about a nursing home resident who claimed a violation of his rights to more broadly limit the right to sue. The justices were told that result could leave tens of millions of people who have rights under federal programs including Medicare and Medicaid without access to the courts.

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But members of both the court's six-justice conservative majority and three-justice liberal wing seemed to have little appetite to rule broadly in the case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the repercussions of doing so. “Neither the federal government nor the states can possibly investigate and remedy every violation of these rights that are given to people,” she said, adding that federal law “speaks clearly” that people have a right to go to court. “Why shouldn't we just respect our precedent?” she asked.

The court was being asked to say that when states agree to accept federal money to provide services — so-called spending clause legislation for programs like Medicare and Medicaid — they shouldn't face lawsuits from individuals over civil rights violations unless the legislation itself gives states clear notice they're subject to lawsuits.

But the court has previously said that a section of federal law — “Section 1983” — applies universally to give people the right to sue government workers when they violate rights created by any federal statute.

The specific case the justices heard involves the interaction of Section 1983 and the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act, a 1987 law that outlines requirements for nursing homes that accept federal Medicare and Medicaid funds. The court is being asked to answer whether a person can use Section 1983 to go to court with claims their rights under the nursing home act are violated.

On that narrower question, it wasn't clear the court would rule Section 1983 lawsuits are permitted. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that the nursing home legislation “says rights over and over again” but also noted that there's a separate administrative process set up for people to complain when their rights are violated. “What's wrong with an administrative process ... if it's comprehensive and works?" He asked at one point.

Biden administration lawyer Benjamin Snyder told the court that Congress did not intend to allow Section 1983 lawsuits when it enacted the nursing home legislation. Snyder said most nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid are private facilities. That means residents of those facilities can't sue under Section 1983 but only have access to administrative remedies. He argued it wouldn't make sense for different rules to apply to government-run facilities.

The specific case in front of the court involves Gorgi Talevski, who was a resident of Valparaiso Care and Rehabilitation, a government nursing home in Indiana. His family says the nursing home found it difficult to care for Talevski, who had dementia, and so gave him powerful drugs to restrain him, then involuntarily transferred him to another facility.

Talevski's family sued under Section 1983, saying his rights had been violated. A trial court dismissed the case, but a federal court of appeals said it could proceed. Talevski died in 2021. A lawyer for the family, Andrew Tutt, told the court that a Section 1983 lawsuit was the family's “last resort” and that it is a “life-saver for people who cannot actually make effective use" of administrative remedies in the law.

The case is Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, 21-806.

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