“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XI – “Lawsuits Against the States”

Original copy of the Eleventh Amendment as signed by Congress (National Archives and Records Administration)

Amendment Eleven to the Constitution was ratified on February 7, 1795. It renders the states immune from lawsuits from out-of-state citizens and foreign individuals. The states also do not have to hear lawsuits filed against them when the charges are based on federal law. The official text is written as follows:

“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.”

The origins of this amendment dates back to an argument surrounding Article III of the Constitution. A key provision of Article III authorizes the federal courts to hear legal disputes between parties from different states and foreign countries. Opponents of the Constitution were concerned that this provision would allow individual citizens to sue states. Supporters of the Constitution responded either with reassurances that such a scenario would be unlikely, or admissions that the provision was designed to keep the states accountable to federal law. This clause was later invoked in a few Supreme Court decisions in the years after the amendment’s ratification, such as in 1793’s Chisholm v. Georgia. In this decision, the Supreme Court determined that a South Carolina citizen’s lawsuit against the state of Georgia was authorized by the Constitution, and as such was allowed to proceed as normal. In response to this precedent, Massachusetts Senator Caleb Strong introduced an amendment that would forbid individuals from different states and countries from making such lawsuits anymore. This amendment was eventually ratified in February 1795, making it the eleventh overall addition to the Constitution.

The Eleventh Amendment was invoked in Supreme Court decisions through the 19th century. It was generally maintained that the states enjoyed varying levels of legal immunity from lawsuits brought by parties from different states and countries. With the trend towards expanding states’ rights in the 20th century, the Eleventh Amendment was accordingly challenged in a series of Supreme Court decisions. 1976’s Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer determined that under the Fourteenth Amendment’s provisions, Congress had the authority to allow states to be subjected to lawsuits, specifically on the grounds of addressing discriminatory practices in said state. Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co. in 1989 further allowed Congress to have these lawsuits take place by the parameters of the Superfund Act. This brief time period of the Eleventh Amendment’s inversion came to a close with 1996’s Seminole Tribe v. Florida, where it was determined that Congress did not, and never had, the authority to have states go through lawsuits in relation to the Commerce Clause of Article I of the Constitution. While this case referred to only one specific tenet of the Constitution, most Supreme Court cases have since referred to and reaffirmed it when making interpretations on interstate lawsuits.

In modern times, the Eleventh Amendment has generally been maintained within the parameters of its original tenets, with a few shifts and expansions. While the states are still immune from out-of-state citizens and international parties, the states are also exempt from lawsuits raised by citizens within their own jurisdictions. 1999’s Alden v. Maine determined that states are also immune from federal-based lawsuits inside state courts. Additionally, the states have since been granted the option to hear such lawsuits if they want to, even if they may not appear to be legally authorized by the amendment. The Eleventh Amendment is one of many of the Constitution’s provisions that reflect the shift of power between federal and state authority, and the way it has been interpreted since its ratification maintains that ever-changing balance.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

Leave a Reply