Frew v. Hawkins

PETITIONER: Linda Frew, on Behalf of Her Daughter, Carla Frew, et al.
RESPONDENT: Albert Hawkins, Commissioner, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, et al.
LOCATION: Elk Grove Unified School District

DOCKET NO.: 02-628
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 431 (2004)
GRANTED: Mar 10, 2003
ARGUED: Oct 07, 2003
DECIDED: Jan 14, 2004

David T. Goldberg - for AARP et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Irving L. Gornstein - argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
R. Ted Cruz - argued the cause for Respondents
Susan Finkelstein Zinn - argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1996, Linda Frew and other citizens settled a class-action lawsuit in federal district court against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Settlement was reached through a consent agree, in which the parties make an agreement that is subject to court supervision. As part of this consent decree, Texas was supposed to improve health care for poor children to comply with a federally mandated program called Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment. Two years later, Frew and others remained unsatisfied that Texas was complying with the federal requirements, and asked the court to force Texas to create a plan for how it would improve health care. Texas refused, however, claiming that it was immune from the court order under the 11th Amendment, which provides for state sovereignty. Texas argued that because no federal rights had been violated, suit could not be brought in federal court. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Texas.


Do states forfeit 11th Amendment protection when they enter into a consent decree under federal law in federal court? And must states violate federal law, not just the consent agreement, in order to be subject to suit in federal court?

Media for Frew v. Hawkins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 2003 in Frew v. Hawkins

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 14, 2004 in Frew v. Hawkins

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-628, Frew against Hawkins will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

One requirement of the Federal Medicaid Statute is that participating states must have a program for early diagnosis and treatment than the purposes to provide early healthcare, particularly to children, to reduce lifelong vulnerability to illness and disease.

In the State of Texas, a group of citizens alleged that the state was not providing these services.

They sued the State of Texas and some of its primary healthcare officials.

The State was dismissed from the proceedings, but the suit against the state officials remained, the so-called Ex parte Young suit.

The case did not proceed to trial however, it was settled when the parties agreed on a consent decree.

And as the consent decreed that is the important part of this case.

The consent decree is some 80 pages long and it directs the state officials to take specific steps which are not mentioned in the statute.

As you can see, because the decree is 80 pages and the statute is just a few paragraphs.

For instance, the decree requires the state officials to establish a toll-free telephone system.

The decree provides detailed instructions for advising about healthcare services on that telephone network and arranging doctor appointments and transportation.

Two years after the consent decree was entered, the parties who brought the suit commenced an action to enforce it.

They alleged that the consent decree was not being implemented according to its terms.

The state officials defended on the grounds that the Eleventh Amendment bars enforcement of the decree which goes beyond the precise terms of the statute.

The District Court rejected that contention, but the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the state officials and it reversed.

So, we took the case to consider whether the Eleventh Amendment bars enforcement of the consent decree in these circumstances.

We conclude the Amendment is not a bar and we reverse the Court of Appeals.

The enforcement of the consent decree is consistent with the Eleventh Amendment on our precedents beginning with Ex parte Young.

The decree is a Federal Court order that springs from a federal dispute, and furthers the objectives of federal law.

The decree reflects a choice among various ways that a state could implement the Medicaid Act.

As a result, enforcing the decree vindicates an agreement that the state officials reached to comply with federal law.

Federal Courts are not reduced to approving the decree and hoping for compliance.

Once entered, a consent decree maybe enforced.

Enforcing the consent decree does not violate the Eleventh Amendment.

Now, the state officials warn that enforcement of the consent decree and if the consent decree is rendered under Ex parte Young can undermine the sovereign interest and accountability of state governments.

The law’s primary response to these legitimate concerns is found not in the Eleventh amendment but in the federal rules of civil procedure.

And in particular Rule 60(b)(5) which reflects the traditional power of a court of equity to modify its decree, it might have changed circumstances.

State officials should be given latitude and substantial discretion when a consent decree is entered under Ex parte Young.

A Federal Court must exercise its equitable powers to ensure that when the objects of the decree have been obtained, responsibility for discharging the State’s obligations is returned promptly to the State and its officials.

Our opinion reversing the Court of Appeals is unanimous.