Access to Justice

Williams v. Washington

In Williams v. Washington, the Supreme Court is considering whether states may force civil rights litigants who bring claims against state officials in state court under Section 1983 to first exhaust their administrative remedies.

Case Summary

At the height of the COVID pandemic, a number of Alabama residents applied for unemployment benefits. Years later, some of them still don’t know whether their applications were ever approved. Others had their applications denied without explanation, while still others never received a hearing to determine their eligibility. Eventually, the applicants sought to challenge these due process failures in state court under Section 1983, a federal civil rights law, as violating the Constitution and the Social Security Act. But the Alabama Supreme Court threw out their claims, concluding that state law prohibits the applicants from going to court unless they first exhaust their administrative remedies by presenting their challenges to the Alabama Department of Labor—the very agency that failed to provide them with timely determinations (or any determinations) in the first place. Our brief explains that the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision, which prevents these applicants from challenging the state’s inaction until the state takes action, is inconsistent with the text and history of Section 1983 for three reasons.

First, Section 1983 was passed to allow the vindication of federal rights in court notwithstanding contrary state policies. The statute was enacted during Reconstruction as a response to the South’s failure to enforce the law impartially. Its framers were deeply concerned about the failure of Southern state actors, including courts, to punish crimes against newly emancipated Black Americans. Although a key innovation of Section 1983 was allowing victims to assert their rights in federal court, Congress also understood that they would have the option of utilizing Section 1983 in state court. And Congress made clear that state policies and judicial practices cannot be allowed to frustrate the remedy that Section 1983 provides.

Second, the Supreme Court has consistently held that Section 1983 plaintiffs cannot be required to exhaust administrative remedies before turning to the courts. For over six decades, the Supreme Court has upheld the “settled rule” that exhaustion of state remedies is not a prerequisite to bringing a Section 1983 case. The Court has held that requiring exhaustion would defeat the purpose of Section 1983, which was to throw open the courthouse doors in the face of civil rights violations. This principle, the Court has explained, holds equally true in federal and state courts.

Finally, this case is no different than prior cases in which the Supreme Court has rejected exhaustion requirements for Section 1983 plaintiffs. Just like in those cases, Alabama cannot compel the applicants to exhaust their administrative remedies before pursuing relief under Section 1983. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled to the contrary only because it failed to engage with decades of precedent rejecting exhaustion requirements in state court. In doing so, the court relied on arguments that the Supreme Court has explicitly and repeatedly rejected—such as the idea that the exhaustion requirement here is acceptable because it merely affects the jurisdiction of the state courts. As the Supreme Court has held, however, the supremacy of federal law over state law “is not so weak that it can be evaded by mere mention of the word ‘jurisdiction.’”

Civil rights plaintiffs shouldn’t need permission to have their day in court from the very government agency that is accused of violating their rights. The Supreme Court should reverse the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision.

Case Timeline

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