Eleventh Amendment

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 text of the Eleventh Amendment limits the power of federal courts to hear lawsuits against state governments brought by the citizens of another state or the citizens of a foreign country. The Supreme Court has also interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to bar federal courts from hearing lawsuits instituted by citizens of the state being sued and lawsuits initiated by the governments of foreign countries. For example, the state of New York could invoke the Eleventh Amendment to protect itself from being sued in federal court by its own residents, residents of another state, residents of a foreign country, or the government of a foreign country.

The Eleventh Amendment is rooted in the concept of FEDERALISM, under which the U.S. Constitution carefully enumerates the powers of Congress to govern at the national level, while safeguarding the power of states to govern locally. By limiting the power of federal courts to hear lawsuits brought against state governments, the Eleventh Amendment attempts to strike a balance between the sovereignty shared by the state and federal governments.

"The object and purpose of the Eleventh Amendment [is] to prevent the indignity of subjecting a state to the coercive process of [federal] judicial tribunals at the instance of private parties" (Ex parte Ayers, 123 U.S. 443, 8 S. Ct. 164, 31 L. Ed. 216 [1887]). The Eleventh Amendment highlights an understanding that the state governments, while ratifying the federal Constitution to form a union, "maintain certain attributes of sovereignty, including sovereign immunity" from being sued in federal court (Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10 S. Ct. 504, 33 L. Ed. 842 [1890]).

However, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar all lawsuits brought against state governments in federal court. Four major exceptions have been recognized by the Supreme Court. First, the Eleventh Amendment does not apply to lawsuits brought against a state's political subdivisions. Accordingly, counties, cities, and municipalities may be sued in federal court without regard to the strictures of the Eleventh Amendment.

The second exception to the Eleventh Amendment permits a state government to waive its constitutional protections by consenting to a lawsuit against it in federal court. For example, Minnesota could waive its Eleventh Amendment protections by agreeing to allow a federal court to hear a lawsuit brought against it.

The third exception permits Congress to abrogate a state's IMMUNITY from being sued in federal court by enacting legislation pursuant to its enforcement powers under the EQUAL PROTECTION and Due Process Clauses of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT (Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 96 S. Ct. 2666, 49 L. Ed. 2d 614 [1976]). Congressional intent to abrogate a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity must be "unmistakably clear" (Atascadero State Hospital

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v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 105 S. Ct. 3142, 87 L. Ed. 2d 171 [1985]). Evidence of this intent may be found in the legislative floor debates that precede a congressional enactment (Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 99 S. Ct. 1139, 59 L. Ed. 2d 358 [1979]).

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress may not abrogate a state's SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY from being sued in federal court pursuant to its regulatory powers under the Indian COMMERCE CLAUSE contained in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution (Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S.44, 116 S. Ct. 1114, 134 L. Ed. 2d 252 (1996). Seminole overruled Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 491 U.S. 1, 109 S. Ct. 2273, 105 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1989), which held that Congress may abrogate a state's immunity under the Interstate Commerce Clause, which adjoins the Indian Commerce Clause in Article I.

Although Seminole involved the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1166 to 1168, 25 U.S.C.A. § 2701 et seq.), which governs certain gambling...

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