Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Congressional Intent to Preclude Equitable Relief: Ex Parte Young after Armstrong

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Congressional Intent to Preclude Equitable Relief: Ex Parte Young after Armstrong

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's recent decision in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc. (1) has raised concerns within the healthcare community (2) and beyond (3) that Armstrong's limitation on courts' traditional equitable powers will have an inimical effect on federal statutes like the Medicaid Act (4) that have relied heavily upon enforcement through litigation. Armstrong concerned a claim by healthcare providers that a state health department's low reimbursement rates violated the Medicaid Act and were thus preempted by the Act. (5) The Court analyzed whether providers had a private right of action to bring the preemption claim via a variety of avenues: an implied right of action derived from the statute, an equitable right of action through courts' traditional equitable remedial powers, and a direct constitutional right of action under the Supremacy Clause. (6) The latter claim garnered the most attention, as the Supreme Court had not yet decided whether the Supremacy Clause confers such a right of action. Justice Scalia, writing for the Armstrong Court, concluded that it does not. (7)

But the heart of the Armstrong opinion was its consideration of the power of "federal courts of equity" to enforce federal law (8)--in particular, the doctrine also known as Ex parte Young, (9) which concerns courts' "ability to ... enjoin unconstitutional actions by state and federal officers" (10) by means of their traditional equitable powers. The Armstrong Court determined that the plaintiff-respondent, Exceptional Child Center, could not rely on the equitable powers of the court to enforce the Medicaid Act provision at issue. (11) The Court applied a two-factor inquiry, noting (1) the existence of a congressionally provided "remedy," in this case a remedy of withholding Spending Clause funding, and (2) the "judicially unadministrable nature" of the provision at issue. (12) Given that both conditions were present, the Court held that equitable judicial enforcement was precluded. (13)

This holding has raised concerns about the availability of the Ex parte Young doctrine as a means to remedy violations of federal law by state actors. As Justice Sotomayor stressed in her Armstrong dissent, the Ex parte Young doctrine has served as a backstop enabling courts to review state actions that violate federal law "since the early days of the Republic." (14) In Seminole Tribe v. Florida, (15) before Armstrong the most recent formulation of the Ex parte Young doctrine, the Court held that the presence of a "detailed remedial scheme" indicated that courts "should hesitate" to exercise their equitable powers. (16) By contrast, under the Armstrong test, courts cannot exercise their equitable powers where: (1) there is a "remedy" provided by the Act (which need not be "detailed"); and (2) the provision is "judicially unadministrable." (17) Thus, Armstrong appears to set a significantly higher threshold for enabling judicial enforcement than that set forth in Seminole Tribe (already viewed by many as a deep incursion into courts' equitable powers under the Ex parte Young doctrine (18)).

Yet Armstrong was in many ways a peculiar case for an Ex parte Young claim. Because the case concerned a potential violation of a federal law that is largely entrusted to a federal agency for enforcement, (19) Justice Breyer pointed out in his concurrence that plaintiffs might instead have brought an Administrative Procedure Act (APA) challenge to the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for refusal to enforce the provision. (20) This would avoid upsetting a "complex rate-setting area" administered by HHS. (21) The Court's inclination to limit judicial interference with agency-enforced administrative schemes is not unique to this case. Its impact has been felt across a range of doctrines--particularly relevant to Armstrong, the Court has sought to limit the availability of private rights of action that are not derived directly from the text of a statute. …

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