Chisholm v. Georgia
Significance: In its first major decision, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution allowed a citizen of one state to sue another state in federal court.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution granted federal jurisdiction over “controversies between a state and citizens of another state.” During ratification of the Constitution, Federalists asserted that this provision would not override the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which meant that the government may be sued only with its consent. Two South Carolina citizens, executors of an estate of a British decedent, attempted to recover property that Georgia had confiscated during the American Revolution. Georgia refused to appear, claiming immunity as a sovereign state. By a 4-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled against the state and endorsed the authority of the federal judiciary over the states. In seriatim opinions, Justices John Jay and James Wilson emphasized strong nationalistic views. They declared that the people of the United States had acted “as sovereigns” in establishing the Constitution and that the states, by virtue of membership in a “national compact,” could be sued by citizens throughout the nation. In dissent, Justice James Iredell, a southerner who had participated in a ratifying convention, argued that the English common law doctrine of sovereign immunity had not been superseded by constitutional provision or by statute. The Chisholm decision was bitterly denounced by partisans of states’ rights. The controversy resulted in the drafting and ratification of the Eleventh Amendment, the first of four amendments to directly overrule a decision of the Court.