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Advocates urge Supreme Court to uphold individuals' ability to enforce essential rights; decision could impact millions of children's access to food, healthcare

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Willis Jacobson, wjacobson@youthlaw.org

A right that cannot be enforced is not a true right at all.  

Today, the National Center for Youth Law, along with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Youth Law Center, and 14 other organizations represented by Upper Seven Law filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court about the importance of retaining the power to enforce essential statutory rights. This friend-of-the-court brief in Health and Hospital Corporation v. Talevski urges the Court to preserve the longstanding legal framework critical to enforcing children’s statutory rights. 

Children across America depend upon federally-funded programs to prevent hunger and malnutrition or to ensure access to necessary care. 

“Without the ability to enforce the law, children will go hungry, experience abuse, and be left without access to essential medical and mental health services," said Poonam Juneja, Senior Managing Director with the National Center for Youth Law. “The Supreme Court’s decision will have wide-ranging impacts — including to our most vulnerable children. An unenforceable right protects no one.”

Upending decades of established precedent that has guarded individuals’ right to enforce laws that protect them would weaken state accountability, undermine Congress, and disrupt a multitude of legislative schemes that rely on precedent as it now stands.

“A decision limiting these particular statutory enforcement actions will limit the rights of millions of children and families, in every state in our nation. It would profoundly hurt the ability of lawyers to secure fair treatment and needed services for vulnerable people” said Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

Added Erin Palacios, an attorney with the Youth Law Center: “Any significant limitation on individuals’ ability to enforce their statutory rights will not only harm the most vulnerable children and families, it will also hurt the public at large by removing the court as an important check to hold federal and state administrations accountable for their actions and spending on some of the country’s most critical and expensive programs.” 

Precedent matters

Petitioners in Talevski ask the Court to weaken protections for individuals and prevent them from enforcing their rights. The request pays no heed to history or case law. Granting their request would overturn decades of precedent that allows third parties (like children) to enforce express statutory rights created using Congress’s spending power. Spending Clause laws effectively form a contract between the federal government and the states, exchanging federal funding for compliance with federal laws. States choose to accept federal money knowing they are required to provide certain services. For decades, the intended beneficiaries of these contracts — like children entitled to food subsidies or mental health services — have enforced these rights through Section 1983, a widely used enforcement mechanism that expressly allows for lawsuits against government agencies.

Congress enacts new spending clause legislation with full understanding that this long-established precedent gives rise to federal rights enforceable under Section 1983. States accept federal funds with this same understanding. Eliminating that baseline, which has been understood and relied on, threatens the balance of constitutional powers by subrogating Congress’s will to the Court’s. It would be akin to the judiciary pulling the rug out from under the legislature. But the Court can honor the foundation upon which many laws are passed and maintain the proper balance of power simply by affirming its own precedents that allow third party beneficiary enforcement.

Impact on youth

Section 1983 is often the only viable mechanism available to remedy state violations of federal rights. In many cases, federal oversight is inadequate to redress the harms state violations cause youth. Without Section 1983 enforcement, childrens’ injuries — everything from hunger, abuse, neglect, and improper medical and mental health care to institutionalization and more — may be left unremedied. The federal government’s only mechanism for requiring state compliance is to withhold funding, which is exceedingly rare and hugely harmful to vastly more children dependent on that funding to meet their basic needs, both now and in the future.

An example: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program upon which millions of children rely for access to basic food and nutrition, could be jeopardized by the change in precedent Petitioners seek. Aware that hunger causes imminent harm, Congress designed SNAP to require participating states to provide timely food assistance. This creates a clear, enforceable federal right to timely receipt of federal assistance. When state systems fail, federal litigation is the only way to ensure children do not go hungry.

Children and youth are uniquely vulnerable. When states assume the responsibility of providing essential services and care — including in custodial settings, such as foster care or juvenile detention — children and youth depend on them to meet their basic needs. Congress has empowered states to provide necessary services and requires states to comply with universal standards for these programs in exchange for federal funding. Within some of these programs, Congress has expressly afforded federal rights to individual children and youth. Importantly, Congress intended those rights to be enforceable.

The National Center for Youth Law, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Youth Law Center, and Upper Seven Law are among several organizations calling on the Supreme Court to ensure these critical rights remain enforceable.

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The National Center for Youth Law centers youth through research, community collaboration, impact litigation, and policy advocacy that fundamentally transforms our nation's approach to education, health, immigration, foster care, and youth justice. Our vision is a world in which every child thrives and has a full and fair opportunity to achieve the future they envision for themselves. For more information, visit www.youthlaw.org.

The Youth Law Center uses litigation, policy reform, public education, technical assistance, and collaboration to transform foster care and juvenile justice systems across the nation so every child and youth can thrive. Our work aims to ensure children are not only protected from harm and dangerous conditions, but also receive the support, opportunities and love they need to grow up healthy and happy. For more information, visit https://www.ylc.org/.

The National Center for Law and Economic Justice advances racial and economic justice for low-income families, individuals, and communities across the country. We were founded on the simple notions that people should not be homeless, children should not go hungry, the sick should receive medical care, and all people should have the opportunity to participate and thrive in our communities and our nation. Through litigation, policy advocacy and support for grassroots organization, we protect vital safety net benefits, secure the rights of disabled persons, ensure fair treatment of low-wage workers, and challenge entrenched systems that keep people poor and deprive them of stability and dignity. For more information, visit www.nclej.org.