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Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Court Lets Stand Ruling On States' Liability Under Title IX

Court Lets Stand Ruling On States' Liability Under Title IX

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The U.S. Supreme Court declined an opportunity last week to take up the issue of whether Congress has the power to require states to waive their immunity from private lawsuits as a condition for receiving federal funds.

The state of Virginia had appealed to the justices' running interest in the principles of federalism and state powers in asking them to hear a case on whether a state university could be sued under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal money. Congress adopted the statute based on the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the law has been cited for decades in cases alleging various forms of sex discrimination in schools and colleges.

The Virginia case began as a somewhat typical Title IX sex-discrimination case in which a student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., alleged that a professor had sexually harassed her.

The university moved to dismiss the federal lawsuit on the grounds of immunity under the 11th Amendment, which has been construed to give the states immunity from federal lawsuits by private citizens.

Congress has passed legislation that specifically removes the states' immunity from being sued under Title IX, but Virginia argued that Congress lacked power under the Constitution to use the distribution of federal funds to abrogate the states' sovereign immunity from private lawsuits.

The state's novel argument was rejected both in federal district court and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, where a five-justice majority has sided with the states in a number of federalism cases over the past five years or so.

In its appeal in George Mason University v. Litman (Case No. 99-596), Virginia maintained that Congress can attach strings to federal funding, but only ones that are related to how such funds are to be spent.

The Clinton administration had urged the court not to accept the case, arguing that Congress was clearly within its powers in requiring states to give up their immunity from lawsuits under Title IX in exchange for federal funds.

"There can be no doubt that Congress, under the spending clause, can require a university that elects to receive federal financial assistance to promise not to discriminate on the basis of sex in any of its operations," the administration said in a brief.

The high court rejected the Title IX case for review without comment Feb. 22.

At least one other education-related case in the judicial pipeline also questions Congress's power to attach conditions to federal spending. The state of Arkansas is arguing in a case pending before a federal appeals court that Congress cannot abrogate states' sovereign immunity under two key federal statutes in the area of special education—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.("Tug of War Over States' Powers Has Lawyers Watching Closely," Feb. 23, 2000. )

Service Plaque

Separately last week, the high court:

  • Declined to review the appeal of two Roman Catholic high schools in New York that were denied membership in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The schools said they met all the criteria for entering the association but were kept out because they lost a referendum of voting members. In their appeal in Kellenberg Memorial High School v. Section VIII of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (No. 99-914), the schools argued their rights to equal protection and due process of law were infringed.
  • Refused to hear the appeal of Sandra Lea Benedict, a teacher who sued the Eau Claire, Wis., school district, alleging discrimination, because the district delayed eight months in awarding her a commemorative plaque for her 25 years of service. Lower federal courts said the failure to provide the plaque on time was not an adverse employment action. The appeal was Benedict v. Eau Claire Public Schools (No. 99-1051).

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Page 30

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