Supreme Court skeptical of rejecting civil rights precedent

WASHINGTON (AP) — It seemed unlikely that the Supreme Court on Tuesday would agree to overturn decades of precedent in a civil rights lawsuit case, a result that would preserve the ability of individuals to apply federal law to lawsuits.

The judges had been asked to consider a case about a nursing home resident alleging violation of his rights in order to further limit the right to sue. The judges were told the outcome could mean millions of people who have rights under federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid are denied access to the courts.

But members of both the six-judge conservative majority and the three-judge liberal wing seemed reluctant to rule comprehensively in the case.

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

The court was asked to explain that if states agree to accept federal funds for the provision of services — so-called spend clause laws for programs like Medicare and Medicaid — they should not face claims by individuals for civil rights violations unless: the legislation itself gives states too clear a warning that they are subject to lawsuits.

But the court has previously said that a section of federal law — “Section 1983” — applied universally to give people the right to sue government employees for violating rights created by federal law.

The specific case the judges heard concerns the interaction of Section 1983 and the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act, a 1987 law that outlines the requirements for nursing homes that accept state Medicare and Medicaid funds. The court is asked to answer whether a person can use Section 1983 to go to court and make claims that would violate their rights under the Nursing Homes Act.

On that narrower question, it was not clear that the court would rule that Section 1983 claims were allowable. Judge Brett Kavanaugh said that care home legislation “keeps talking about rights,” but also noted that there is a separate administrative process for people to complain when their rights are violated. “What’s wrong with an administrative procedure… if it’s comprehensive and it works?” he asked at one point.

Biden administration attorney Benjamin Snyder told the court Congress had no intention of allowing lawsuits under Section 1983 when it enacted the Nursing Home Act. Snyder said most nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid are private entities. This means that residents of these facilities cannot sue under Section 1983, but only have access to administrative remedies. He argued that there would be no point in different rules applying to state institutions.

The particular case before the court involves Gorgi Talevski, a resident of Valparaiso Care and Rehabilitation, an Indiana state nursing home. His family says the nursing home found it difficult to care for Talevski, who suffered from dementia, so gave him powerful medication to restrain him and 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 appeals court said it could go ahead. Talevski died in 2021. An attorney for the family, Andrew Tutt, told the court that a Section 1983 lawsuit was the family’s “last resort” and that it was a “lifesaver for people who cannot effectively use administrative remedies.” in law.

The case is Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, 21-806. Supreme Court skeptical of rejecting civil rights precedent

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