11th Amendment Sovereign Immunity & Implications for Civil Rights Actions

It is a core tenant of our Nation’s federal system that States are sovereign entities yielding only to those powers of the federal government enumerated by the Constitution of the United States. The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution provides “[t]hat 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.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. Despite the simplicity of the Amendment’s text, judicial interpretation as to the scope of the Eleventh Amendment and the broader doctrine of Sovereign Immunity on which it relies has created a maze of complicated analysis with far-reaching implications for civil rights litigants in federal court.

To begin with, the Eleventh Amendment is itself only a partial recitation of the sovereign immunity enjoyed by the States. In 1793, the Supreme Court held in Chisholm, Ex’r v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793) that federal courts had jurisdiction over suits brought by a resident of one state against another state, without running afoul of the defendant-state’s sovereign immunity. Concerned with the growing consolidation of power in the federal government, political forces of the time quickly passed and ratified the Eleventh Amendment to abrogate the Court’s decision, extending immunity to the States even with respect to actions filed by residents of another state. As a result, the States are now generally immune from suit in federal court by private individuals.

This, however, did not fully settle the matter. In 1908, the Supreme Court pushed back, holding in Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) that federal courts still have jurisdiction over suits against individuals acting on behalf of a state, at least for the limited purpose of granting prospective injunctive relief to prevent future violations of federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Thus, under Ex Parte Young, a person cannot sue the “State of California” in federal court, but she could sue the “Governor of California,” or any other appropriate state official, for prospective equitable relief.

In the century following the Supreme Court’s decision in Ex Parte Young, countless plaintiffs have sought injunctive relief in federal court to prevent violations of constitutionally-protected rights. Indeed, many of the Supreme Court’s high-profile civil rights opinions rely, in whole or in part, on the Court’s decision in Ex Parte Young which allowed such suits in the first place —e.g. Roe v. Wade (holding that the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion), Citizens United v. FEC (holding that the First Amendment protects a corporation’s independent expenditures for political communication).

In the midst of these many civil rights cases, the tension between each State’s interest in preserving its sovereign immunity and the federal government’s interest in adjudicating matters of federal law continued to unfold, producing a variety of “wrinkles” in Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence. A person cannot sue the “State of California” in federal court, but what about a county, city, school district, or another subdivision of the State? The answer to these questions are, to an extent, factually specific, and they ultimately depend on whether the named-defendant is an “arm of the State,” such that it may avail itself of the protections afforded by sovereign immunity. All U.S. counties and all California public school districts, for example, have been held to be “arms of the State” and immune from suit in federal court; municipalities, on the other hand, do not enjoy the same protections. While the full extent of these complexities cannot be fully summarized here, suffice it to say that civil rights litigants must tread carefully when building a case against the government. Failure to do so may result in a swift summary dismissal of the case. 

Gregory R. Michael is an associate who handles constitutional civil rights litigation at Dhillon Law Group Inc.