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Opinion
Noah Feldman

What Do You Mean, I Can't Sue My State?

When your state breaks federal law in a way that affects you, can you sue in federal court to make it do the right thing?
Anthony Kennedy, what are you thinking?

Anthony Kennedy, what are you thinking?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images
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When your state breaks federal law in a way that affects you, can you sue in federal court to make it do the right thing? On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court made doing so substantially harder. In a case involving private health-care providers in Idaho, the justices held that the health workers can’t sue Idaho -- even though the state was paying them less than required under federal Medicaid law.

If this sounds weird to you, the fault isn’t yours. The problem lies with the version of federalism that underlies the 5-4 decision. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the court’s controlling opinion, bent over backward to say that the Constitution shouldn’t be read to provide an automatic right to sue your state when it violates federal law. Then he over-read the Medicaid statute to say that it actually prohibits the workers from suing their state -- even though all it says is that the Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to enforce the law against a state, not that private parties can’t enforce the law as well.