The Supreme Court, in a surprising order yesterday, broadened the issues it will consider in a case involving citizens' rights to file lawsuits that accuse someone of cheating the federal government.
When the justices agreed to review the case last June, they said they would hear Vermont's argument that the Constitution and federal law bar citizens from filing such lawsuits against states.
But yesterday, the court announced it also will consider whether citizens have the right to file such lawsuits at all, even against someone other than a state. The justices are scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Nov. 29. Lawyers for both sides were ordered yesterday to file briefs by Nov. 30 discussing the court's new focus.
The Vermont dispute stems from the federal False Claims Act, which lets citizens file lawsuits on the government's behalf alleging fraud against the government. People whose lawsuits are successful can collect a share of damages awarded.
Jonathan Stevens, then a lawyer for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, sued the agency in 1995. He alleged it had submitted false time records in connection with federal grant programs.
Vermont sought to have the case dismissed, but a federal appeals court rejected the state's argument that people cannot sue states under the False Claims Act and the Constitution's 11th Amendment protects states against such lawsuits.
Those questions were granted review by the Supreme Court in June.
The order issued yesterday asks lawyers to submit written briefs on another question: Whether people ever have legal standing to file fraud claims on the government's behalf.
The case is Vermont Agency of Natural Resources vs. U.S.