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Eleventh Amendment

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Description: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits lawsuits in federal courts against states by citizens of other states or of foreign countries.


Significance: This forty-three-word amendment has been interpreted by Supreme Court decisions to extend far beyond what it literally declares. In particular, it has been used to provide states with the common-law privilege of sovereign immunity, which means that they cannot be sued without their consent.


Ratified in 1795, the Eleventh Amendment was the first amendment added to the U.S. Constitution following the adoption of the Bill of Rights. It was adopted specifically to overrule a Supreme Court decision, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). In that decision, the Court had ruled that a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff, who served as executor for the estate of a South Carolina merchant, was valid because the defendant, the state of Georgia, had refused to appear in its own defense at the trial. Georgia claimed that, as an independent and sovereign state, it enjoyed immunity from such litigation. Article III, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution grants jurisdiction to federal courts in the case of controversies between a state and citizens of another state. In a 4-1 decision, with only justice James Iredell dissenting, the Court held that the plaintiff in Chisholm had the right to sue the state of Georgia and that the state of Georgia was legally remiss in not responding to that suit. Opinions by Justices John Jay and James Wilson reiterated the nationalist view that sovereignty rests in the people of the United States for the purposes of union. In regard to these purposes, Georgia, in the eyes of these justices, did not meet the criterion of being a sovereign state.


Passage of the Amendment

On March 4, 1794--within a year of the Chisholm decision—Congress drafted the Eleventh Amendment and urged its passage. By February 4, 1795, the legislatures of the requisite three-quarters of the states had ratified the amendment, which officially made it a law and a part of the U.S. Constitution. The only states not ratifying it were Pennsylvania and New Jersey. By an odd circumstance, however, the amendment was not officially declared a part of the Constitution until January 8, 1798, when President John Adams declared it to be in effect in a presidential message. The date on which the Eleventh Amendment officially became a part of the Constitution is often given as January 8, 1798, although it is now conceded that presidents play no official role in the amendment process, so the Eleventh Amendment officially became a part of the Constitution after its ratification in 1795.


Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity

Under the Eleventh Amendment, federal courts are prohibited from considering lawsuits brought against states by two specific classes of people: citizens of other states and citizens and subjects of foreign nations. As time passed, however, the Eleventh Amendment was interpreted more broadly than had probably been originally intended by its framers. In New Hampshire v. Louisiana (1883), the Supreme Court ruled that one state could not sue another state if it did so in the interests of one or more of its citizens rather than in its own interest. A further extension of the Eleventh Amendment occurred in Ex parte New York (1921), when the Court found that the amendment applied to admiralty jurisdiction so that the could not be sued in federal courts for events that took place in the waters that adjoined those states. In Monaco v. Mississippi (1934), the Court clearly found that foreign sovereigns could not sue sovereign states of the United States in federal courts. The words of the Eleventh Amendment do not refer to any limitations on the right of state citizens to sue the state within which they reside. Nonetheless, in the controversial Hans v. Louisiana (1890) decision, the Court concluded that the Eleventh Amendment protects the states’ sovereign immunity from all lawsuits, even those coming from citizens of the same state. The Court limited the effect of the Hans ruling somewhat in the case of Ex Parte Young (1908), which allowed suits against state officers whenever they violated the U.S. Constitution. The theory behind the ruling was that the state was not being sued, although officials could be sued for acts committed in the name of the state. Many years later the Young ruling was itself limited in Edelman v. Jordan (1974), which held that the Eleventh Amendment bars suits against state officials for damage awards that would be paid out of the state treasury. During the 1990's, the five conservative members of the Rehnquist Court wanted to adhere faithfully to the Hans precedent, while the four liberal members believed it had been wrongly decided. The Court voted five to four to restore Hans and reverse a 1989 precedent in Seminole Tribe v. Florida (1996), ruling that a state's sovereign immunity overrides power to regulate commerce. By a 5-4 vote in Alden v. Maine (1999), the Court extended the protection of sovereign immunity to states sued in their own state courts for violations of federal law. The Alden ruling was based on the concept of sovereign immunity that existed in the English common law at the time the Constitution was adopted. The same five-member majority ruled in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (2000) that the Eleventh Amendment barred state employees from suing state institutions under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967). Then in Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority (2002), the Court, again by a 5-4 majority, further shielded states from the obligation of having to answer private complaints before federal executive agencies. The impact of sovereign immunity has been limited in practice because all of the states except for Virginia have waved much of their immunity. Virginia has thus become the only state that can almost never be sued by its own citizens. Even Virginia, however, can be sued in federal bankruptcy cases. This was decided in Central Virginia Community College v. Katz (2006), when the supervisor of a bankrupt estate sued a state-run college in federal court under the bankruptcy laws. The Supreme Court voted five to four to uphold the suit. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that because Article I of the Constitution authorized Congress to enact uniform bankruptcy laws, it could be assumed that the states had agreed to this limitation on their immunity when they ratified the Constitution. Katz is unique in being the only case in which the Court has permitted Congress to use one of its Title I powers as a justification for authorizing a person to sue a state.


Exceptions

Significant exceptions have been made to the states’ immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Immunity does not extend to the political subdivisions within the states, such as cities and counties. Although states may waive their sovereign immunity from suit, Congress may not assume they have does so unless the waver is explicit. Congress, by virtue of its enforcement powers specified in section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, may enact statutes that authorize private causes of action against states for violating the provisions of the amendment, in particular the equal protection clause. Congress's power to abrogate under section 5, however, is limited. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), the Court specified that laws passed under section 5 must be narrowly tailored to address constitutional violations, thus giving Congress only limited power to enforce laws against discrimination based on age and disability. Perhaps no amendment to the Constitution has been interpreted in as many various ways as the Eleventh. Some noted legal scholars have called for its restatement and simplification. Others have proposed that the amendment should be interpreted literally based on the simple declaration of its forty-three words. At present, however, citizens who think they have cause to take action against states must pursue political action or work within the framework of exceptions that has resulted from the Supreme Court's complex interpretations of the amendment. Since the Seminole Tribe decision of 1996, most of the major decisions under the Eleventh Amendment have been decided by 5-4 votes, which strongly suggests that the precedents are vulnerable to future reversals.



Further Reading

  • Baum, Lawrence. The Supreme Court. 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003.
  • Doernberg, Donald. Sovereign Immunity or the Rule of Law. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2006.
  • Noonan, John Thomas. Narrowing the Nation's Power: The Supreme Court Sides with the States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • O’Brien, David. Constitutional Law and Politics, Volume One: Struggles for Power and Governmental Accountability. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
  • Orth, John V. The Judicial Power of the United States: The Eleventh Amendment in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Symposium. “State Sovereign Immunity and the Eleventh Amendment,” Notre Dame Law Review 75 (2000): 817-1182.