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This Article reconstructs the litigation over an infamous institution for people with disabilities—Pennhurst State School & Hospital—and demonstrates that litigation’s powerful and underappreciated significance for American life and law. It is a tale of two legacies. In U.S. disability history, Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital is a celebrated case. The 1977 trial court decision recognized a constitutional “right to habilitation” and ordered the complete closure of an overcrowded, dehumanizing facility. For people concerned with present-day mass incarceration, the case retains relevance as an example of court-ordered abolition.

For those outside the world of deinstitutionalization and disability rights, however, the Pennhurst case carries different associations, drawn from the two Supreme Court decisions (in 1981 and 1984) that the litigation produced. Although rarely analyzed in tandem, both decisions were about the scope of federal power vis-à-vis the states: the first about how to interpret the terms of federal-state grants-in-aid, a ubiquitous policy device by the second half of the twentieth century; the second about state sovereign immunity.

Bringing these multiple legacies together for the first time—with the benefit of interviews and archival research—this Article shows how an unprecedented victory for disabled and institutionalized Americans limited the role of the federal government in the lives of all Americans. The litigation did so by (1) restricting Congress’s ability to incentivize fair and adequate treatment and (2) constraining individuals’ use of federal courts to hold accountable the level of government with the most meaningful ability to harm or help them. This Article concludes by suggesting what we gain from restoring historical context to these doctrinal innovations. Future research should explore how ideas about intellectual and developmental disability in the late twentieth century informed equality doctrines and the judicial enforcement of positive rights.


pennhurst, federal power, sovereign immunity, positive rights, fair and adequate treatment, halderman v. pennhurst state school & hospital

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California Law Review