The full 5th Circuit appeals court in New Orleans has narrowly rejected claims by the state of Louisiana that it could not be sued over alleged violations of federal laws protecting students with disabilities.
In a 8-6 ruling this month, the court knocked down a 2003 decision by a three-judge panel of the same court that sided with the state over whether it was entitled to “sovereign immunity” from such suits.
The panel’s ruling had alarmed some advocates of people with disabilities, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division intervened in the case against the state.
The case involves Travis Pace, a high school student with multiple mental and physical disabilities who sued the Bogalusa, La., school district and the state in 1999. Among other claims, the suit alleged violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The majority of the full 5th Circuit court agreed that Mr. Pace’s specific claims lacked merit, as the court panel had found. But the court upheld the family’s right to sue the state, rejecting Louisiana’s argument that it had not knowingly waived its constitutional right to immunity from private lawsuits when it accepted federal funds under the IDEA and Section 504.
The source of its confusion, the state contended, was uncertainty in the law over congressional authority to take away states’ immunity from lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Pace’s family, backed by the Justice Department, contended that the state did in fact give up its immunity. In its March 8 decision, the 5th Circuit court agreed, over the objections of six circuit judges who joined in a dissent written by the author of the panel’s 2003 ruling.
The state, if it chooses to do so, has 90 days to file a request with the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.