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Jurisdiction: State as a Party

Article III of the Constitution extends the judicial power to "Controversies between two or more States, between a State and Citizens of another State . . ., and between a State . . . and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects," and provides that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in cases where a state shall be a party. The Judiciary Act of 1789 granted the Supreme Court exclusive original jurisdiction only in suits between two or more states, with the remainder of state party suits left concurrent with other courts. The 1789 statute did not expressly include state party suits in the grant of jurisdiction to the U.S. district or circuit courts, however.

Neither the Constitution nor the 1789 Judiciary Act distinguished between cases in which states were plaintiffs and those in which states were defendants, leading some to believe that states could be sued in federal court. It was not long before federal judges were asked to interpret federal court jurisdiction over suits against states. In the 1791 case of Farquhar v. Georgia , the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Georgia dismissed a suit against the state of Georgia, ruling that the Constitution's grant of jurisdiction over state party suits was exclusive to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff in that case responded by filing an original suit in the Supreme Court. In the 1793 decision in that case, Chisholm v. Georgia , the Supreme Court ruled in a 4-to-1 decision that Article III permitted a common-law suit against a state by a citizen of another state.

State legislatures criticized the Chisholm decision as a threat to their sovereignty and urged Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution to overrule the Court. Congress acted quickly and in March 1794 submitted to the states what became the Eleventh Amendment when it was ratified by the states in 1795. The Eleventh Amendment states that "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."

In the early nineteenth century, the Supreme Court preserved one method for out-of-state citizens to claim rights against state governments. In the 1824 case of Osborn v. Bank of the United States , the Supreme Court ruled that the Eleventh Amendment barred a suit only when a state was a named defendant-the Court would not look beyond the named parties in a case to question whether a state government was the true object of a suit. This ruling allowed individuals to file equity petitions against state officers as individuals to halt official actions alleged to be illegal or unconstitutional.

In the decades following the Civil War, the Supreme Court embraced a broad interpretation of state sovereign immunity, and in a succession of decisions the Court restricted the ability of individuals to assert in federal courts legal rights against states. Many of the cases arose from attempts by bondholders to prevent states from repudiating debts incurred during Reconstruction. In cases such as Louisiana ex rel. Elliot v. Jumel (1883) and In re Ayers (1887), the Court created an exception to the principle established in Osborn and ruled that a suit in federal court to compel state officers to honor the state's financial obligations was in reality a suit against a state and barred by sovereign immunity. In the 1890 case of Hans v. Louisiana , the Supreme Court further ruled that the Eleventh Amendment barred a suit in federal court by a citizen against his or her own state based upon a federal question. The Court held that even though the amendment did not mention suits between a state and its own citizens, the principle of sovereign immunity was implicit in the Constitution. In 1921, in the case of Ex parte New York , the Supreme Court ruled that state sovereign immunity also extended to admiralty suits, and in 1934 the Supreme Court extended state sovereign immunity to suits by foreign governments.

During the twentieth century, the Supreme Court carved out some exceptions to the broad application of state sovereign immunity. The Court revived the principle of the Osborn decision and ruled in 1908 in Ex parte Young that one could sue for prospective relief, such as an injunction, against a state officer to prevent enforcement of a state law or regulation alleged to be unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that once an officer took action that was void under the Constitution, the officer ceased to represent legitimate state authority and thus was no longer protected by sovereign immunity. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer that Congress could annul state sovereign immunity as part of its authority to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Supreme Court recognized the authority of Congress to annul state immunity pursuant to other regulatory powers as well, but in the 1996 case of Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida , the Court ruled that Congress could only annul state immunity in suits related to enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

State governments have also periodically entered the federal courts as plaintiffs, usually through original proceedings before the Supreme Court. Suits between states are heard exclusively by the Supreme Court and have frequently involved boundary disputes, water rights, and financial obligations of one state to another. In a small number of cases, state governments have filed suit in the Supreme Court against individuals or corporations to enjoin environmental pollution and other nuisances or to resolve disputes over land titles, though the Supreme Court has accepted jurisdiction in such cases only sparingly.

Further Reading:
Charles Alan Wright and Mary Kay Kane, Law of Federal Courts , 6th Edition (St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2002), Chapter 8.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction , 4th Edition (New York: Aspen Publishers, 2003), Chapter 7.

Lawrence C. Mitchell, "Fighting Words of the Eleventh Amendment," Harvard Law Review 102 (1989): 1342-71.

John V. Orth, The Judicial Power of the United States: The Eleventh Amendment in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

James E. Pfander, "History and State Suability: An 'Explanatory' Account of the Eleventh Amendment," Cornell Law Review 83 (1997-1998): 1269-1382.