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Eleventh Amendment: About

Amendment XI: The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Why is the Eleventh Amendment Important?

The Eleventh Amendment’s text prohibits the federal courts from hearing certain lawsuits against states. The Amendment has also been interpreted to mean that state courts do not have to hear certain suits against the state, if those suits are based on federal law. During the debates over whether to ratify the Constitution, controversy arose over one provision of Article III that allowed federal courts to hear disputes “between” a state and citizens of another state, or citizens or subjects of a foreign state. Anti-Federalists (who generally opposed the Constitution) feared that this provision would allow individuals to sue states in federal court. Several prominent Federalists (who generally favored the Constitution) assured their critics that Article III would not be interpreted to permit a state to be sued without its consent. However, some other Federalists accepted that Article III permitted suits against states, arguing that it would be just for federal courts to hold states accountable.

Soon after ratification, individuals relied on this Clause in Article III to sue several states in the Supreme Court. One of these suits was Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), in which a citizen of South Carolina (Chisholm) sued Georgia for unpaid debts it incurred during the War of Independence. Georgia claimed that federal courts were not allowed to hear suits against states, and refused to appear before the Supreme Court.  In 1793, the Supreme Court ruled, by a four-to-one vote, that Chisholm’s suit against Georgia could proceed in federal court. The Court relied in part on the text of Article III, explaining that “between” encompasses suits “by” and “against” a state.

Several other suits against other states were pending at the time Chisholm was decided in 1793, including Vassall v. Massachusetts, in which a British subject (William Vassall) sued Massachusetts for violating the Treaty of Peace by confiscating his property. Alarmed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Chisholm, Senator Caleb Strong, of Massachusetts, quickly proposed an amendment that ultimately became the Eleventh Amendment. As ratified, the Amendment provides: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” Following its ratification, pending suits against states were generally dismissed. 

In some early interpretations, the Amendment was not read expansively. In Cohens v. Virginia (1821), the Court rejected a challenge to its jurisdiction to review a state court decision in a criminal case, in which Virginia prosecuted two brothers from Virginia for the crime of selling lottery tickets. The Cohens defended on the ground that a federal statute authorized the lottery and ticket sales. The Court first concluded “that, as the [C]onstitution originally stood, the appellate jurisdiction of this Court, in all cases arising under the [C]onstitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, was not arrested by the circumstance that a State was a party.” Turning to the Eleventh Amendment, the Court noted that a defendant who seeks appellate review of an adverse decision “does not commence or prosecute a suit against the State.” Moreover, the Court said, the Amendment would not in any event apply because the Cohens were citizens of Virginia, and thus their appeal against Virginia was not “by a citizen of another State, or by a citizen or subject of any foreign State.” 

In its 1890 decision in Hans v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court interpreted the Eleventh Amendment immunity broadly to prohibit suits against a state not only by citizens of another state, but also by a state’s own citizens, and in cases arising under federal law. It essentially disavowed the contrary language in Cohens. The Hans Court placed weight on the speed with which the Amendment was adopted, and suggested that Chisholm had erred in upholding jurisdiction under the original Constitution, which could not have contemplated individual suits against states. Continue reading from Constitution Center

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