This decision (very good though brief AP coverage; actual decision text here) has a lot of subtleties. A judge has issued an injuction requiring FEMA to continue benefits to Katrina evacuees — some applicants were recently denied.
First of all, I think it needs to be clear it’s a preliminary injuction, not a ruling. That simply means the case has high short-term consequences, so the judge ruled in a hurry and will refine or even take back the order after further proceedings.
I should also note that the argument isn’t over the housing benefits themselves — it’s over whether FEMA gave enough information that the denied applicants could appeal if desired. There is apparently a process to transition between short- and long-term housing assistance, and FEMA is entitled to make calls as to which applicants it will deny for long-term help. It just has to tell them why and let them appeal, in keeping with due process.
In fact, FEMA is only required to pay short-term benefits until it provides better reasoning for its long-term benefits denials.
That said, it’s not hard to see where the judge is going with this. FEMA’s negligence is arguably “incredible;” the codes used to notify the folks of their denial were “cryptic.” It is “well established that government benefits create constitutionally protected property interests if an applicant has a ‘legitimate claim of entitlement to it,’ rather than mere expectation.” They’ve essentially won.
As much as I loathe the entire concept of “entitlement” to others’ money — at first the disaster obviously called for help, but it’s been a year and taxpayers are still footing (at least part of) the housing bill — and as juvenile as the judge’s loaded language is, the ruling seems pretty legally sound.
We should be more angry with FEMA for its poor processes, which just cost us a good chunk of change. Due process isn’t exactly an obscure legal loophole.
Robert VerBruggen blogs at http://robertsrationale.blogspot.com.