Parents Can't Sue States Over Child Support, Ruling Says

Supreme Court Rejects Notion That Citizens Can Force System To Work

April 22, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Parents raising their children without the other parent have no right to go to court to force states to do a better job of collecting child support payments, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

A 1975 federal law that sets up an elaborate system to enforce child support does not give parents any enforceable right to have the system work successfully, the court declared.

As a result of the ruling, parents apparently will have to rely mainly on federal officials, using the threat of a cutoff of federal funds to states, to try to bring a state government into line with its duties under the 1975 law.

The government has used that threat repeatedly against Arizona, the state involved in yesterday's ruling, but that state still has a record of getting regular child support payments for fewer than 5 percent of the parents it serves, the court noted.

"Arizona's record is less than stellar, particularly compared with those of other states," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.

The federal government does have another, more drastic weapon available for use in individual cases. Under the "deadbeat dad" law passed in 1992, it may bring criminal charges against parents who fail to satisfy their child support obligations.

That law, not affected by yesterday's decision, has been under constitutional challenge in the lower courts.

The ruling grew out of attempts by five mothers to get Arizona officials to strengthen their system of enforcing child support under the 1975 law. That law requires states to achieve "substantial compliance" with all of their duties to deliver service to parents.

They asked a federal judge to order Arizona to do anything it needed to do to achieve the "substantial compliance" standard. They won in a federal appeals court, but the Supreme Court overturned that result yesterday.

"The requirement that a state operate its child support program in `substantial compliance' [with the federal law] was not intended to benefit individual children and custodial parents, and therefore it does not constitute a federal right," O'Connor declared.

This is "simply a yardstick," she wrote, for federal officials to measure how a state program as a whole is functioning, in order to determine whether child welfare funds need to be cut off as an incentive to improve a state program's results.

The government has no authority, other than a threat of holding back up to 5 percent of welfare funds, to order a state to do anything in particular or to provide any specific service to any individual, the opinion said.

The court went on to say that it was not ruling out entirely all lawsuits by parents under the 1975 law. But that apparently left only a narrow opening for parents to sue, since the court stressed that such lawsuits must involve a very specific claim -- such as a claim that state officials have not actually handed over any of support payments they obtain for a parent.

It sent the Arizona case back to lower courts to see if the five mothers involved do have any such claims.

ABC appeal turned aside

The court, without comment, turned aside an appeal by ABC-TV seeking to nullify a million-dollar libel verdict against it.

The verdict resulted from a 1992 broadcast on an "Evening News" segment about "Anger in America," describing how taxpayers in a Georgia county were upset over the county's purchase of a garbage recycling machine. The broadcast said that machine "does not work."

The manufacturer of the machine, insisting that the machine does work, sued for libel, and won $900,000 for damage to its reputation plus $158,000 for damage due to lost profits.

Branch Davidian case

The court also turned down the first case to reach it as a result of the showdown between federal law enforcement officers and the Branch Davidian religious cult in Waco, Texas, four years ago.

A gun battle was the first deadly encounter in the Waco standoff that ended 51 days later with a burning of the compound by the Davidians. In that initial exchange of gunfire, four agents and six civilians died.

Four members of the cult were then prosecuted for federal gun crimes, and convicted. In the appeal the justices rejected without comment yesterday, the Davidians sought to challenge their convictions and sentences.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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