The meaning of the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is that it is the amendment that prevents Americans from bringing federal lawsuits against the states. For example, the 11th Amendment establishes that federal courts do not have the jurisdiction to hear lawsuits against the states. If an individual wants to sue the state he lives in, he must bring that suit in the District Court of that state. To explore this concept, consider the following 11th Amendment definition.
Definition of 11th Amendment
- The amendment to the Constitution that prevents American citizens from suing states in federal court.
What is the 11th Amendment?
The 11th Amendment to the Constitution prevents American citizens from suing a state in federal court. For example, the 11th Amendment dictates that, if an individual has a case that he would like to bring against the state he lives in, he must bring the lawsuit in the District Court of that state. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are very few of them.
History of the 11th Amendment
The history of the 11th Amendment begins right after the creation of the Bill of Rights. In other words, the 11th Amendment was the first Constitutional amendment made after the adoption of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments). The history of the 11th Amendment was rooted in a Supreme Court ruling wherein the Court held that federal courts had jurisdiction over individual cases against the states. As a result, states could not enjoy sovereign immunity from these kinds of cases.
The recent history of the 11th Amendment shows that it serves to clarify the Constitution, which is important since the Supreme Court often refers to the Constitution when making its decisions. With the 11th Amendment in place, federal courts could only hear state cases in certain situations, such as citizens from another state suing a different state from the one in which they lived.
Diversity jurisdiction refers to the procedure by which a federal district court can hear a state case, or civil case, when the amount in question is over $75,000. Another requirement of diversity jurisdiction is that the parties are “diverse,” meaning they either live in a different state or country.
The Constitution gives Congress permission to allow federal courts to hear diversity cases. The Framers of the Constitution included the diversity jurisdiction provision because they were worried that a state court might favor the parties from its own state, no matter the issue. They therefore made it more difficult for federal courts to hear state cases by implementing restrictions on the kinds of cases federal courts can hear.
Sovereign immunity is the idea that a sovereign, or state, is immune from wrongdoing, and therefore it is also immune from being the subject of either a civil or criminal case. There are two types of sovereign immunity:
- Immunity from suit (a.k.a. immunity from jurisdiction or judgment)
- Immunity from enforcement
Immunity from suit when discussing sovereign immunity means that neither a state nor the head of state can become a defendant or even a subject in a court proceeding. No one can bring arbitration against a state, nor can anyone order the state to pay damages. Immunity from enforcement means that, even if a person can skirt around the immunity from suit issue and obtain a judgment, no one can enforce that judgment (i.e. no one can force a state to pay).
In some cases, a state may waive its immunity, such as if a prior written agreement exists, or if the state accepts being the defendant in a lawsuit.
Exceptions to the Ban
There are four 11th Amendment examples of exceptions to the ban when suing state courts. These exceptions to the ban include:
- A person can bring a state lawsuit in federal court if the lawsuit is against a state’s subdivisions, like its counties or cities.
- A state can consent to becoming a party to a state suit in federal court.
- Congress can strip a state’s immunity from the suit, provided Congress makes its intention for doing so “unmistakably clear.”
- While no one can sue a state in state court under normal conditions, if a state breaks a federal law, the federal court can order that state’s officials to comply with the law.
One of these 11th Amendment examples of exceptions to the ban was the matter of Martin v. Voinovich (1993), wherein the Supreme Court rendered a decision ordering Ohio’s governor to build housing for handicapped people. This decision was the result of the state’s refusal to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
11th Amendment Example In the State of Georgia
One of the many the 11th Amendment affecting a Supreme Court case occurred in 1793 in the matter of Chisholm v. Georgia – two years before the creation of the 11th Amendment. Here, Alexander Chisholm went directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to sue the State of Georgia for payments he claimed the state owed him for goods received during the American Revolutionary War.
The State of Georgia did not appear as the defendant, arguing that it did not have to. Georgia was a sovereign state and, unless it consented to the lawsuit, Chisholm did not have the power to sue the state in federal court.
The question for the Court was an easy one: could a state citizen sue his state government in federal court? Perhaps unsurprisingly, as this was before the creation of the Eleventh Amendment, in a majority vote the Court ruled in Chisholm’s favor. The Court reasoned that the Constitution stripped the State of Georgia of its sovereign immunity and, as such, the Supreme Court, as a federal court, had the jurisdiction to decide the case.
Said the Court:
“For the reasons before given, I am clearly of opinion that a State is suable by citizens of another State; but left I should be understood in a latitude beyond my meaning, I think it necessary to subjoin this caution, viz., that such suability may nevertheless not extend to all the demands and to every kind of action; there may be exceptions.
For instance, I am far from being prepared to say that an individual may sue a State on bills of credit issued before the Constitution was established, and which were issued and received on the faith of the State, and at a time when no ideas or expectations of judicial interposition were entertained or contemplated.”
In 1795, Chisholm became what was surely one of many 11th Amendment examples negating prior Supreme Court rulings. Now, citizens could only sue a state with that state’s consent, or if Congress striped the state’s immunity from the suit. Because neither of those things happened in this case, the Court reversed its judgment to favor the State of Georgia.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Arbitration – The settling of a dispute between two parties by an impartial third party.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.