Section 1983 and the Spending Power: Enforcement of Federal ”Laws” Page: 4 of 13
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Section 1983 and the Spending Power:
Enforcement of Federal "Laws"
In Gonzaga University v. Doe, 122 S. Ct. 2268 (2002), the Supreme Court held
that a student may not sue a private university for damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983
to enforce provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974
(FERPA). The holding itself would not be especially noteworthy had it been based
on a straightforward reading of the statute. The Court, however, announced a broad
rule derived from the nature of Congress's spending power, and in doing so
confirmed an interpretation that greatly narrows the availability of section 1983 as
a means of enforcing private rights to sue state officials, if those rights are derived
from a federal spending statute. The Gonzaga decision can therefore be viewed as
an important element of the Court's federalism jurisprudence. The case also
represents a victory for Chief Justice Rehnquist, who has consistently opposed broad
applicability of section 1983, and now apparently has a majority that supports his
position. The implications for congressional drafting are clear: if Congress wishes
to create rights in private individuals and make those rights enforceable, it should do
Background - 42 U.S.C. 1983
During the 1960s and 1970s citizens increasingly resorted to federal courts for
redress of grievances. Important legislation had been enacted (e.g., the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1968), the Warren Court had recognized
a number of individual and civil rights, and the Court was also generally receptive
to judicial review. Several means were available to bring suit, and these included the
doctrine of implied private rights of action as well as 42 U.S.C. 1983. For a while,
the Court was receptive to implied private rights of action, but when the Court
tightened the rules during the 1970s, litigants increasingly looked elsewhere. Section
1983 was available for suits against state and local officials, and the Court's decision
in Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1(1980), greatly broadened its possible applicability.
42 U.S.C. 1983, enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and as revised
in 1874, provides:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or
usage, of any State or Territory, 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 Constitution and laws, shall be liable to
the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for
redress. [emphasis added]
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Section 1983 and the Spending Power: Enforcement of Federal ”Laws”, report, September 12, 2002; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc806080/m1/4/: accessed June 23, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.