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In win for youth, Supreme Court upholds individuals' ability to enforce rights
Decision affirms the ability of children and others to sue states that violate their essential rights

young child coloring in a book

Every young person deserves an opportunity to grow, learn, and thrive as they pursue their dreams. This can only happen when their essential rights are respected and enforced. Otherwise, those rights are meaningless.

It is for these reasons the National Center for Youth Law applauds the U.S. Supreme Court's majority decision this month in Health and Hospital Corporation v. Talevski to preserve the ability of children and other beneficiaries of certain federal spending programs to sue states that violate their essential rights under those programs. With the 7-2 decision, the justices rejected a challenge that sought to leave these youth and other beneficiaries powerless to ensure their rights are enforced.

The National Center for Youth Law joined with several other organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court in the case. Our brief explained the importance of maintaining the longstanding ability of beneficiaries — like children and youth — to enforce important rights given to them through certain programs that Congress enacts under its spending power. The Court’s decision emphatically reaffirmed that such federal statutes can be privately enforced by individual plaintiffs, including the children intended to benefit from these programs.

Other organizations that signed onto the friend-of-the-court brief include the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Youth Law Center, and 14 others represented by Upper Seven Law. 

Critically-needed enforcement

The petitioners in Health and Hospital Corporation argued that statutes creating spending programs do not count as “laws” enforceable under Section 1983, and that these statutes should be enforced only by the federal government cutting off funds to states who violate them. But withholding funds under a spending program is exceedingly rare and can be hugely harmful to the many beneficiaries dependent on that funding to meet their basic needs, both now and in the future. Without Section 1983 enforcement, childrens’ injuries — everything from hunger and improper medical and mental health care to institutionalization and more — could be left unremedied.

Decades of precedent supported the notion that, where a statute, including those enacted pursuant to Congress’s spending power, unambiguously creates a right, individuals can enforce that right through Section 1983, which allows people to sue state and local governments for “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” Congress has created many essential rights for children and other beneficiaries using its spending power, including related to basic needs, such as access to food and mental health services. 

The National Center for Youth Law’s enforcement of the rights conferred by these spending program laws through Section 1983 is a critical tool to protect children’s basic rights. For example, in M.J. v. District of Columbia, the National Center for Youth Law and its partners are currently suing the District of Columbia under Section 1983 on behalf of Medicaid-eligible children with mental health disabilities to enforce their rights to receive medically necessary intensive community-based services as required by the Medicaid Act, rather than be unnecessarily institutionalized. 

Fortunately, the Supreme Court resoundingly rejected the petitioners’ argument, holding that Section 1983’s use of the word “‘laws’ means ‘laws,’ no less,” with no exception for statutes enacted under Congress’s spending powers. Writing for the Court, Justice Jackson reaffirmed that the test for determining whether a federal statute unambiguously confers a right and is therefore enforceable through Section 1983 applies to spending program laws, just like all other laws.

Continued work to protect this important tool will be necessary in the future. While the majority decision was a decisive victory, not all Justices agreed; Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that spending program statutes cannot create rights enforceable through Section 1983. And although Justice Gorsuch concurred in the majority opinion, he expressed some willingness to reconsider in the future whether spending power legislation can secure rights against states. The National Center for Youth Law is committed to defending this key vehicle for protecting basic rights for children and youth.