Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Eleventh Amendment: Suits Against States

The Passage

In 1792, Alexander Chisholm, a resident of South Carolina, attempted to sue the state of Georgia for payments due to him for supplies provided to the state during the Revolutionary War. Georgia claimed sovereign immunity under Article III of the Constitution and refused to appear in court. Sovereign immunity is the legal principle that state governments, or officers acting on their behalf, cannot be sued in federal court by citizens of other states or foreign entities without consent. Cases involving state governments and citizens of other states are known as diversity jurisdiction. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chisholm and impelled Georgia to proceed with the case. Prior to Chisholm v. Georgia, the Constitution was understood to protect states from such suits.

The decision sent shockwaves through the states, several of whom had cases pending against them. For example, a British subject named William Vassall sued the state of Massachusetts for confiscating his property at the conclusion of the Revolution. Senator Caleb Strong of Massachusetts moved quickly to propose an Amendment to the Constitution that clarified Article III. Strong and other proponents of the Amendment were intent on halting court proceedings against their states since legal actions were costly and reflected negatively on state governments. The Eleventh Amendment was ratified in 1795, just two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Chisholm v. Georgia.

Amendment Text

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.

Interpretation

The Eleventh Amendment is an “explanatory amendment.” It does not change the laws of the Constitution, but rather explains an often misinterpreted text. Article III of the Constitution allows federal courts to rule on controversies “between a State and Citizens of another State.” The Eleventh Amendment, however, affirms state sovereign immunity by clarifying that controversies “between a State and Citizens of another State” do not include suits brought against a state by private citizens of another state. The Amendment contradicts the Supreme Court’s decision in Chisholm v. Georgia

Major Court Cases

The Eleventh Amendment effectively reversed the Chisholm decision, nullifying any pending actions in that case and any other case citing it as precedent. The Supreme Court affirmed the retroactivity of the Eleventh Amendment in the 1798 case Hollingsworth v. Virginia, allowing cases like Vassall v. Massachusetts to be dismissed after the fact. Though the Eleventh Amendment was meant to clarify the Constitution, its interpretation has varied from case to case since its ratification, causing significant controversy.

Controversies

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1821 case Cohens v. Virginia read the Amendment in a narrow view. The case reached the Supreme Court on appeal, meaning that it was not “commenced or prosecuted” against the state by the Cohens, enabling the Court to render a judgment. The Court subsequently ruled that Virginia did not enjoy sovereign immunity in this case because the Cohens were citizens of Virginia.

However, in the 1890 case Hans v. Louisiana, the Court interpreted the Amendment broadly and ruled that Louisiana did, in fact, enjoy sovereign immunity in the case brought by Hans, a citizen of that state. This ruling seemingly contradicted the conclusion of the Cohens case. Cohens and Hans had opposite outcomes despite citing the same Amendment in the decision.

This controversy was resolved in 1999 with Alden v. Maine. The Court ruled to uphold the precedent of Hans v. Louisiana, interpreting the Eleventh Amendment to extend sovereign immunity to include cases brought against states by their own citizens. The Court was divided in this case though, with only five of the nine justices issuing the majority opinion. The four dissenting justices believed that the Amendment only granted state sovereign immunity in cases of diversity jurisdiction.

Why Care?

The Eleventh Amendment and its wide range of interpretations reflect broader discussions of the Constitution and amendments. Some scholars, politicians, and legislators believe that Constitutional documents should be read literally, word-for-word, and interpreted as such. Others argue that taking the words of the Constitution literally does not always lead to practical applications of the laws it outlines. Interpreting the Constitution in the context of whatever is up for discussion might offer more realistic results. Supreme Court rulings on Eleventh Amendment cases seem to mirror predominant opinions on “correct” Constitutional interpretations at the time of the ruling. The decision in Cohens v. Virginia, for example, cites a literal reading of the Amendment. On the other hand, in Hans v. Louisiana and Alden v. Maine, the Supreme Court took a more flexible approach to reading the Amendment. The best approach to reading the Constitution remains contested to this day.

Think Further

  1. Should the Eleventh Amendment be read literally or in the context of the time(s) and situation(s) in which it is invoked?
  2. Is sovereign immunity fair? Should state governments be exempt from legal action?
  3. What are the pros and cons of sovereign immunity?

Teacher Resources

Sign up for our educators newsletter to learn about new content!

Educators Newsletter

Get updated about new videos!

Newsletter

Infographic

Learn More

  1. Smentkowski, B. P. (2014, November 18). Eleventh Amendment. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eleventh-Amendment.
  2. Interpretation: The Eleventh Amendment | The National Constitution Center. (n.d.). https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xi/interps/133.
  3. Clark, B.R. (2010). The Eleventh Amendment and the Nature of the Union. Harvard Law Review. http://cdn.harvardlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/vol123_clark.pdf.