Blessing, Director, Arizona Department of Economic Security v. Freestone et al.
Decided on Apr. 21, 1997; 520 US 329


A. Issues Discussed:  Child support, Social Security Act 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Title IV–D of the Social Security Act, give individuals a federal right to force a state agency to substantially comply with Title IV–D to collect child-support payments from ex-spouses?

A. Background:

"Respondents, five Arizona mothers whose children are eligible for state child support services under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against petitioner, the director of the state child support agency, claiming, among other things, that they properly applied for child support services; that, despite their good faith efforts to cooperate, the agency never took adequate steps to obtain child support payments for them; that these omissions were largely attributable to staff shortages and other structural defects in the State's program; and that these systemic failures violated their individual rights under Title IV-D to have all mandated services delivered in substantial compliance with the title and its implementing regulations. They requested broad relief, including a declaratory judgment that the Arizona program's operation violates Title IV-D provisions creating rights in them that are enforceable through a §1983 action, and an injunction requiring the director to achieve substantial compliance with Title IV-D throughout all programmatic operations. The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioner, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. Without distinguishing among the numerous provisions of the complex Title IV-D program or the many rights those provisions might have created, the latter court held that respondents had an enforceable individual right to have the State achieve 'substantial compliance' with Title IV-D. It also disagreed with the District Court's conclusion that Congress had foreclosed private Title IV-D enforcement actions by authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) to audit and cut off funds to States whose programs do not substantially comply with Title IV-D's requirements."

On appeal the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Opposing Side
Marsha S. Berzon argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents.

Patricia A. Millett argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With her on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, William Kanter, and Alfred Mollin.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Christopher A. Hansen, Steven R. Shapiro, and Erwin Chemerinsky;

for the Anti-Poverty Project of the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School by Gary H. Palm;

for the National Center for Youth Law et al. by Leora Gershenzon, Martha Matthews, and Brian Paddock;

and for the National Women’s Law Center et al. by Regina G. Maloney, Nancy Duff Campbell, Elisabeth Hirschhorn Donahue, and Martha F. Davis.

C. Tim Delaney, Solicitor General of Arizona, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Grant Woods, Attorney General, Carter G. Phillips, Richard D. Bernstein, and Adam D. Hirsh.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Illinois et al. by James E. Ryan, Attorney General of Illinois, Barbara A. Preiner, Solicitor General, and James C. O’Connell, Barbara L. Greenspan, and James C. Stevens, Special Assistant Attorneys General, and Charles F. C. Ruff, Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Bruce M. Botelho of Alaska, Daniel E. Lungren of California, Gale A. Norton of Colorado, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, Michael J. Bowers of Georgia, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Alan G. Lance of Idaho, Pamela S. Carter of Indiana, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Andrew Ketterer of Maine, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Scott Harshbarger of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley of Michigan, Mike Moore of Mississippi, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Jeffrey R. Howard of New Hampshire, Peter Verniero of New Jersey, Dennis C. Vacco of New York, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Betty D. Montgomery of Ohio, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, Thomas W. Corbett, Jr., of Pennsylvania, Jeffrey B. Pine of Rhode Island, Charles Molony Condon of South Carolina, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Charles W. Burson of Tennessee, Dan Morales of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, Jeffrey L. Amestoy of Vermont, James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, Christine O. Gregoire of Washington, William U. Hill of Wyoming, Malaetasi M. Togafau of American Samoa, Calvin E. Holloway, Sr., of Guam, and Julio A. Brady of the Virgin Islands;

for the American Public Welfare Association et al. by Diana L. Fogle;

for the Council of State Governments et al. by Richard Ruda and Charles Rothfeld;

and for the National District Attorneys Association et al. by John D. Krisor, Jr., John Kaye, Michael R. Capizi, John Ladenburg, and Michael McCormick.


"Title IV-D does not give individuals a federal right to force a state agency to substantially comply with Title IV-D...

Respondents have not established that Title IV-D gives them individually enforceable federal rights. In prior cases, the Court has been able to determine whether or not a statute created such rights because the plaintiffs articulated, and lower courts evaluated, well defined claims. Here, respondents have not identified with particularity the rights they claim, and the Ninth Circuit has not engaged in the requisite methodical inquiry. That court erred in apparently holding that individuals have an enforceable right to 'substantial compliance' with Title IV-D in all respects. The statutory 'substantial compliance' requirement..., does not give rise to individual rights; it was not intended to benefit individual children and custodial parents, but is simply a yardstick for the Secretary to measure the systemwide performance of a State's Title IV-D program...

The Court of Appeals also erred in taking a blanket approach to determining whether Title IV-D creates rights... Although this Court does not foreclose the possibility that some Title IV-D provisions give rise to individual rights, the Ninth Circuit did not separate out the particular rights it believed arise from the statutory scheme, the complaint is less than clear in this regard, and it is not certain whether respondents sought any relief more specific than a declaration that their 'rights' were being violated... This defect is best addressed by sending the case back for the District Court to construe the complaint in the first instance, in order to determine exactly what rights, considered in their most concrete, specific form, respondents are asserting..."

The U.S Supreme Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit's judgment; the Supreme Court vacated and remanded in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.