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Justices reinstate mental health lawsuit

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court says Virginia’s advocate for the mentally ill can sue to force state officials to provide records relating to deaths and injuries at state mental health facilities.

The justices, in a 6-2 ruling Tuesday, reinstated the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy lawsuit against Virginia’s mental health commissioner and two other officials.

According to the opinion, the three state workers refused to produce records requested by VOPA, claiming that a state-law privilege shielded the records from disclosure. VOPA sought and was granted an injunction by a federal district court in Virginia, requiring the officials to produce the records and refrain from interfering with VOPA’s right of access in the future.

The district court had permitted the lawsuit under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, “which normally allows federal courts to award prospective relief against state officials for violations of federal law,” according to the Supreme Court.

On appeal, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the state advocate’s lawsuit after determining that the Eleventh Amendment prohibits a state agency from going to federal court to sue officials of the same state.

“… [B]ecause VOPA is a state agency, Ex parte Young is the improper vehicle for VOPA to gain access to a federal forum,” the 4th Circuit wrote.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, stating that “the principles undergirding the Ex parte Young doctrine support its extension to actions of this kind.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court’s opinion, saying the lawsuit should have been permitted. Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case.

The case is VOPA v. Stewart, 09-529.

Daily Record editor Erin Drenning contributed to this article.