WASHINGTON, April 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 Tuesday a watchdog state agency may sue state officials to get information about deaths at state mental hospitals.
Two federal laws offer states money to improve medical care for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities. If a state accepts the funding, the laws require the state to set up a "protection and advocacy" system.
The system may either be a private non-profit entity or a state agency, but if it is a state agency the U.S. laws say it must have the authority to sue other state agencies or officials, and must be free from the control of other agencies.
Within this structure, Virginia set up the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, free of executive-branch oversight. While investigating deaths and injuries at state mental hospitals, VOPA asked state officials in charge of those hospitals to produce patient records.
When officials refused, citing a state law that shielded such records from disclosure, VOPA sued in federal court.
State officials asked for dismissal under the 11th Amendment's guarantee of state sovereignty. Eventually a federal appeals court agreed with the state.
But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with VOPA -- in the prevailing opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia -- that a 1908 Supreme Court precedent allowed state agencies to sue officials or states when they were acting unconstitutionally.
Justice Elena Kagan, who had been U.S. solicitor general during the litigation, did not participate in consideration of the case or in the decision.