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United States Supreme Court

397 U.S. 397

Rosado  v.  Wyman

 Argued: Nov. 19, 1969. --- Decided: April 6, 1970

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.

Petitioners are New York welfare recipients who contend that recently enacted New York welfare legislation which reduces the welfare benefits to which they are entitled under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program is inconsistent with the federal AFDC requirements found in § 402(a)(23) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(23) (1964 ed., Supp. IV). The New York statute that petitioners are challenging, § 131-a of the New York Social Services Law, was enacted on March 31, 1969. Little more than a week later on April 9, petitioners filed their complaint challenging this statute. The Court today holds that 'the District Court correctly exercised its discretion by proceeding to the merits' of petitioners' claim that the federal and state statutes are inconsistent. At 401. The Court reaches this conclusion despite the fact that the determination whether a State is following the federal AFDC requirements is clearly vested in the first instance not in the federal courts but in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW); despite the fact that at the very moment the District Court was deciding the merits of petitioners' claim HEW was performing its statutory duty of reviewing the New York legislation to determine if it was at odds with § 402(a)(23); and despite the fact that if HEW had been given enough time to make a decision with regard to the New York legislation, its decision might have obviated the need for this and perhaps many other lawsuits. I regret that I cannot join an opinion which fails to give due consideration to the unmistakeable intent of the Social Security Act to give HEW primary jurisdiction over these highly technical and difficult welfare questions, which affirms what is to me a clear abuse of discretion by the District Court, and which plunges this Court and other federal courts into an ever-increasing and unnecessary involvement in the administration of the Nation's categorical assistance programs administered by the States. [1]

Under the AFDC program, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601-610 (1964 ed., and Supp. IV), the Federal Government provides funds to a State on the condition that the State's plan for supplementing and distributing those funds to needy individuals satisfies the various federal requirements set out in the Social Security Act. By statute, the Secretary of HEW is charged with the duty of reviewing state plans to determine if they comply with the now considerable list of federal requirements. 42 U.S.C. § 602 (1964 ed., and Supp. IV), and his approval of such a plan, and only his approval, qualifies the state program for federal financial assistance. 42 U.S.C. § 601 (1964 ed., Supp. IV). So that HEW may determine whether the state plan continues at all times to meet the federal requirements, each State is required by regulation to submit all relevant changes, such as new state statutes, regulations, and court decisions, to HEW for its review. 45 CFR § 201.3. If, after affording the State reasonable notice and an opportunity for a hearing, HEW determines that the state plan does not conform to the federal requirements, the federal agency then has a legal obligation to terminate federal aid to which the State would otherwise be entitled. 42 U.S.C. §§ 604, 1316 (1964 ed., Supp. IV); 45 CFR § 201.5. Waiver by the Secretary of any of the federal requirements is permitted only where the Secretary and state welfare officials have together undertaken a 'demonstration' or experimental welfare project. 42 U.S.C. § 1315 (1964 ed., Supp. IV). The administrative procedures that the Secretary must afford a State before denying or curtailing the use of federal funds are elaborated in 42 U.S.C. § 1316 (1964 ed., Supp. IV), and this section also provides that a State can obtain judicial review in a United States court of appeals of an adverse administrative determination.

This unified, coherent scheme for reviewing state welfare rules and practices was established by Congress to ensure that the federal purpose behind AFDC is fully carried out. The statutory provisions evidence a clear intent on the part of Congress to vest in HEW the primary responsibility for interpreting the federal Act and enforcing its requirements against the States. Although the agency's sanction, the power to terminate federal assistance, might seem at first glance to be a harsh and inflexible remedy, Congress wisely saw that in the vast majority of cases a credible threat of termination will be more than sufficient to bring about compliance. These procedures, if followed as Congress intended, would render unnecessary countless lawsuits by welfare recipients. In the case before the Court today it is undisputed that HEW had by the time of the proceedings in the District Court commenced its own administrative proceedings to determine whether § 131-a conforms to the Social Security Act's provisions. The agency had requested the New York welfare officials to provide detailed information regarding the statute and was preparing to make its statutorily required decision on the conformity or nonconformity of § 131-a. It was at this point, when HEW was in the midst of performing its statutory obligation, that the District Court assumed jurisdiction over petitioners' claim and decided the very state-federal issue then pending before HEW. Both Judge Hays and Judge Lumbard of the Court of Appeals were of the opinion that the District Court abused its discretion in finding that it had jurisdiction over this statutory claim, and both judges relied in part on the pendency of the identical question before the federal agency. 414 F.2d 170, 176, 181 (1969). Chief Judge Lumbard's reasoning is instructive:

'(H)ere, as Judge Hays points out, the federal claim seems more apt for initial resolution by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, than by the courts. The two issues upon a resolution of which this claim turns-the practical effect of § 131-a and the proper construction of § 602(a)(23) of the Social Security Act-both are exceedingly complex. The briefs and arguments of the parties, and the varying judicial views they have elicited, have demonstrated the wisdom of allowing HEW, with its expertise in the operation of the AFDC program and its experience in reviewing the very technical provisions of state welfare laws, an initial opportunity to consider whether or not § 131-a is in compliance with § 602(a)(23). This is HEW's responsibility under the Social Security Act, see 42 U.S.C.A. § 1316 (Supp.1969). I believe that the district court should have declined to exercise its jurisdiction, thus permitting HEW to determine the statutory claim asserted by plaintiffs, for the Department already had initiated review proceedings concerning § 131-a.' 414 F.2d, at 181.

I agree with the Court of Appeals that the District Court abused its discretion in taking jurisdiction over this case, but I would go further than holding that the District Court's action was a mere abuse of discretion. Ensuring that the federal courts have the benefit of HEW's expertise in the welfare area is an important but by no means the only consideration supporting the limitation of judicial intervention at this stage. Congress has given to HEW the grave responsibility of guaranteeing that in each case where federal AFDC funds are used, federal policies are followed, and it has established procedures through which HEW can enforce the federal interests against the States. I think these congressionally mandated compliance procedures should be the exclusive ones until they have run their course. The explicitness with which Congress set out the HEW compliance procedures without referring to other remdies suggests that such was the congressional intent. But more fundamentally, I think it will be impossible for HEW to fulfill its function under the Social Security Act if its proceedings can be disrupted and its authority undercut by courts which rush to make precisely the same determination that the agency is directed by the Act to make. And in instances when HEW is confronted with a particularly sensitive question, the agency might be delighted to be able to pass on to the courts its statutory responsibility to decide the question. In the long run, then, judicial pre-emption of the agency's rightful responsibility can only lead to the collapse of the enforcement scheme envisioned by Congress, and I fear that this case and others have carried such a process well along its way. Finally, there is the very important consideration of judicial economy and the prevention of premature and unnecessary lawsuits, particularly at this time when the courts are overrun with litigants on every subject. If courts are permitted to consider the identical questions pending before HEW for its determination, inevitably they will hand down a large number of decisions that could have been mooted if only they had postponed deciding the issues until the administrative proceedings were completed. For all these reasons I would go one step further than the Court of Appeals majority and hold that all judicial examinations of alleged conflicts between state and federal AFDC programs prior to a final HEW decision approving or disapproving the state plan are fundamentally inconsistent with the enforcement scheme created by Congress and hence such suits should be completely precluded. This preclusion of judicial action does not, of course, necessarily mean that the individual welfare recipient has no legal remedies. The precise questions of when and under what circumstances individual welfare recipients can properly seek federal judicial review are not before the Court, however, and I express no views about those issues. [2]


^1  This precise issue was not so clearly and sharply presented in King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309, 88 S.Ct. 2128, 20 L.Ed.2d 1118 (1968), which I joined. See id., at 317 n. 11, 326 n. 23, 88 S.Ct. 2133, 2138.

^2  The issues are canvassed in Note, Federal Judicial Review of State Welfare Practices, 67 Col.L.Rev. 84 (1967).

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).