Determined the ability of plaintiffs to use a federal law that prohibits state officials from violating constitutional or statutory rights to sue the state for failing to provide child support enforcement services mandated under federal law.
This case was brought on behalf of a class of women who sought child support enforcement services from the State of Arizona. Although federal law clearly required the states to have an effective child support enforcement program for all recipients of welfare and others who ask for help, Arizona's program did not provide all required child support services or provide them in a timely manner. The district court dismissed the case holding that a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action could not be brought to enforce federally created rights to child support. On appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs could bring such an action. The Supreme Court took certiorari on the question of whether mothers could sue under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to compel the state to identify, locate and seek support from absent fathers as required by the federal statute. Legal Momentum was of counsel on the amicus brief submitted on behalf of women's groups and provided substantial assistance on the main brief.
The U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that in order to proceed under § 1983, a plaintiff must show a specific enforceable right under federal law; the Court further held that these plaintiffs had not pleaded which specific rights were violated by the State of Arizona. The Court remanded the case for a determination of whether specific rights of the plaintiffs had been violated by Arizona's conduct of its child support enforcement program. In doing so, however, the Court unanimously rejected the State's claims that
- the enforcement scheme under the Child Support Enforcement Act is sufficiently comprehensive to foreclose all review;
- that the Eleventh Amendment precludes suit; and
- that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not encompass federal rights guaranteed by statute.
The case, in holding that actions may still go forward to challenge state action (or inaction) with respect to child support enforcement as long as the plaintiff can show specific injury, was a victory for women, particularly in light of the many ways the Court could have chosen to foreclose access to the federal courts with respect to this statute.