With this article, the Center for Constitutional Values begins a new series on the amendments after the Bill of Rights.
The 11th Amendment
The 11th Amendment’s text is 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 purpose of this amendment was to clarify what Article III Section 2 meant regarding the federal judiciary’s role in cases involving the states. In 1793, the Court issued an opinion in Chisolm v. Georgia that the federal courts did have the authority to hear cases when one of the parties to a suit was a state.
Alexander Chisolm was a resident of South Carolina. He was an executor for the Estate of Robert Farquhar. Georgia owed Farquhar money for Revolutionary War debts. Chisolm sued in the U.S. Supreme Court for payment. Georgia refused to appear citing that as a “sovereign state,” it could not be sued unless it gave consent. In a 4-1 vote, the Court ruled that Article III Section 2 abrogated sovereign immunity and gave the federal courts jurisdiction.
The states became alarmed with the prospect and pushed for adoption of the 11th Amendment which upheld the doctrine of sovereign immunity for the states. The amendment precludes suits for monetary damages or equitable relief without a state’s consent. It does not apply to a state or officials that violate federal law.
In Ex parte Young (1908), the Court ruled that states may enjoin state officials from violating federal law. In 1976, the Court ruled that states are not immune to suit brought under the 14th Amendment (Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer). States also cannot claim sovereign immunity in bankruptcy cases.
Justice Kennedy in Alden v Maine (1999) wrote that sovereign immunity did not originate with the 11th Amendment but rather from the original structure of the Constitution. Writing for the 5-member majority, his opinion stated that Article 1 did not give Congress the right to abridge the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Justice Souter in writing for the 4-member minority stated that states surrendered their sovereign immunity when they adopted the Constitution.
The amendment clarified Article III Section 2 as to where suits should be brought. However its interpretation continues.