Why George Bush’s Lawyer Sued The Governor, but not State, of California Over Proposition 8 (And Why He Didn’t Sue Arnold Personally)

JURIST’s Paper Chase reports an interesting development:

Former US solicitor general Ted Olson and prominent litigator David Boies [professional profiles] announced [video] Wednesday that they have filed suit [complaint, PDF] challenging California’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage [JURIST news archive], Proposition 8 [text, PDF], on federal Constitutional grounds. The complaint, filed Friday in the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website], seeks to enjoin enforcement of the ban on the grounds that California state officials, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Edmund Brown [official websites], would be liable under 42 USC § 1983 [text] for violating the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment [text] if they were to restrict civil marriages to those “between a man and a woman.” The complaint alleges that denying same-sex couples the right to marry is a Fourteenth Amendment violation because it stigmatizes gay and lesbian couples by creating “separate but unequal” domestic partnerships designation, and because it “treats similarly-situated people differently by providing civil marriage to heterosexual couples, but not to gay and lesbian couples.”

Theodore Olson and David Boies were the respective lead lawyers in a little case called Bush v. Gore. Other links available at Above The Law, including quotes from (understandably) almost speechless liberals activists amazed by Olson’s involvement.

The complaint in Perry alleges three claims: due process, equal protection, and “42 U.S.C. 1983.” These are all commonly referred to as “civil rights” claims. 42 U.S.C. 1983 is a federal statute that provides:

Every person who, under color of any [state law], subjects… any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the [United States] Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress …

1983 enables plaintiffs to sue “persons” who, acting “under color of” state law, violate rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Note how 1983 doesn’t enable plaintiffs to sue states that violate constitutional rights. The Eleventh Amendment and “the structure of the original Constitution itself” recognize the sovereign immunity of the states from suits by private citizens, which Congress can’t overcome with merely a statute. See Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999)(holding Congress generally cannot authorize private suits against the state even in state’s own courts).

Indeed, the Perry suit does not name the State of California among its defendants, but instead:

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, in his official capacity as Governor of California; EDMUND G. BROWN, JR., in his official capacity as Attorney General of California; MARK B. HORTON, in his official capacity as Director of the California Department of Public Health and State Registrar of Vital Statistics; LINETTE SCOTT, in her official capacity as Deputy Director of Health Information & Strategic Planning for the California Department of Public Health; PATRICK O’CONNELL, in his official capacity as Clerk-Recorder for the County of Alameda; and DEAN C. LOGAN, in his official capacity as Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for the County of Los Angeles[.]

Odd, no? You can sue every office through whom the state acts, from the Governor to the “Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk,” but not the state itself? That’s the rule laid down by two 101-year-old companion cases, Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) and General Oil Co. v. Crain, 209 U.S. 211 (1908):

It seems to be an obvious consequence that as a State can only perform its functions through its officers, a restraint upon them is a restraint upon its sovereignty from which it is exempt without its consent in the state tribunals, and exempt by the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, in the national tribunals. The error is in the universality of the conclusion, as we have seen. Necessarily to give adequate protection to constitutional rights a distinction must be made between valid and invalid state laws, as determining the character of the suit against state officers. And the suit at bar illustrates the necessity. If a suit against state officers is precluded in the national courts by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, and may be forbidden by a State to its courts, as it is contended in the case at bar that it may be, without power of review by this court, it must be evident that an easy way is open to prevent the enforcement of many provisions of the Constitution … .

In short: A state is immune from suit, but a state officer can be sued for attempting to enforce an “invalid” law. It’s a legal fiction: you sue the state by suing the officers.

Except, you can’t sue the officers:

Obviously, state officials literally are persons [under 42 U.S.C. 1983]. But a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official’s office. Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471 (1985). As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself. See, e. g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 -166 (1985);

Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).

So what’s the difference between the Young / Crain rule in 1908 and the Will rule 81 years later?

Money.

The Perry suit only seeks an injunction against the officials preventing them from enforcing Proposition 8 to deny same-sex marriage. It thus gets the Young / Crain rule. The Will rule only applies to suits for monetary damage.

Why the distinction? Neither the Constitution nor 42 U.S.C. 1983 draws any distinction between suits for injunctive relief and suits for money damages. 1983 specifically says the person “shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law.” The Supreme Court, however, thought it prudent to create such a distinction where none existed.

One more issue then we’re done: why not also sue Schwarzenegger and the rest personally to obtain money damages? The problem is suits for money damages against individuals must also overcome the hurdle of “qualified immunity,” as described by Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982):

government officials performing discretionary functions[] generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

The right to same-sex marriage is indisputably not “clearly established” — the Perry case seeks to establish the right. As such, there’s no chance of recovering monetary damages, and no use in complicating the case that way.

If the Perry plaintiffs succeed, however, they “may” recover “a reasonable attorney’s fee” “in [the court's] discretion.” 42 U.S.C. 1988.

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  • Jaime

    From what I understand of the Ex Parte Young doctrine, suing a state official “in his official capacity” means suing “an arm of the state,” which is tantamount to suing the state itself. Whether for injunctive relief or money damages, doesn’t such a pleading risk being barred by sovereign immunity?
    Or perhaps pleading “official capacity” is merely a surmountable issue of semantics?
    Would it make any sense instead to sue the governor “in his individual capacity” for injunctive relief? If someone could clarify this for me, I’d greatly appreciate it.