Experts Say Ruling Not Likely To Alter Liability for Districts

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Despite some predictions to the contrary, a civil rights ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last week probably will not change the liability landscape for local governments, including school districts, legal experts said.

Some observers had said that if the high court upheld lower court decisions in McMillian v. Monroe County (Case No. 96-542) more states might seek to immunize local officials from civil rights suits by declaring them to be state, not local, officials.

But the 5-4 opinion was written narrowly and did not endorse sweeping immunity changes.

The high court ruled that an Alabama county could not be sued under the federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 because the local sheriff at the heart of the case was not a county policymaker.

In a 1978 decision, the Supreme Court had said local governments can be held liable under Section 1983 for policies that violate an individual's constitutional rights.

Last week's decision came in the case of a death row inmate whose murder conviction was overturned on the grounds that the sheriff and others had suppressed evidence of his innocence.

The man sued the county for damages under Section 1983. Lower federal courts dismissed the suit, ruling that the sheriff was a state official and the county did not have policymaking authority over the sheriff's law-enforcement duties.

Little Chance of 'Evasion'

A legal expert said the high court's opinion focuses on the way Alabama treats sheriffs under its state constitution.

"States have a lot of freedom in the way they structure their local governments," said Robert Long of Covington & Burling, a Washington law firm that wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case for the American Civil Liberties Union. "But if they adopt a structure for the purpose of evading Section 1983 liability, that is not likely to work."

Both the majority and dissenting opinions in the case also stressed that the ruling should not provide most local governments with a new means to evade civil rights suits.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority and was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the sheriff was in most respects a county official and thus the county should face liability.

She was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Stephen G. Breyer.

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