Amendment XI – Suits Against a State (1795)

The Eleventh Amendment (Amendment XI) to the U.S. Constitution reads 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 Eleventh Amendment limits the power of federal courts to hear lawsuits against state governments brought by citizens of another state or citizens of a foreign country.  The Eleventh Amendment was interpreted by the Supreme Court 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 instance, the state of Michigan 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. 

It was held in Cunningham v. Macon & B. R. Co.[1], that a state cannot be sued as defendant in any court without its consent, except in limited class of cases in which it can be made party in a Supreme Court case by virtue of its original jurisdiction.  This principle was 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, the Eleventh Amendment tries to maintain a balance between the sovereignty shared by the state and federal governments.

The Supreme Court has decided in several cases such as, Hans v Louisiana[2], Mather v Oklahoma Employment Sec. Comm’n (In re Southern Star Foods)[3], and North Carolina v Temple[4] that a State cannot be sued by a citizen of another state, or of a foreign state, on mere grounds that the case is one arising under Constitution or laws of United States.  However, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar all lawsuits brought against state governments in federal courts. 

The Supreme Court has recognized four major exceptions when state governments can be sued in federal courts.  First, the Eleventh Amendment does not apply to lawsuits brought against a state’s political subdivisions.  As a result, 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 protection by agreeing to a lawsuit brought against it in a federal court.  For example, New York State 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.[5]  For instance, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 9601 et seq.) is one federal law passed pursuant to congressional power under the Commerce Clause.  Under this statute, states can be held liable in federal courts for costs incurred from cleaning up hazardous waste sites. 

The final exception to the Eleventh Amendment permits citizens of any state to seek an injunction against state officials to end a continuing violation of federal law by them in federal court.  For instance, residents of Colorado can bring a lawsuit in federal court seeking to compel the state’s governor to build housing in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq., a federal statute intended to protect the rights of handicapped U.S. citizens). 

Furthermore, federal courts derive their power to hear lawsuits from Article III of the Constitution.  Section 2 of Article III enumerates two general categories of cases and controversies that can be decided by the federal judiciary.  Two general categories of cases decided by federal courts are subject matter and those identified by their parties.  Federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases whose subject matter arises under the U.S. Constitution, and those based on the parties involved in the lawsuit.  The federal judiciary may also entertain disputes “between two or more States,” “between Citizens of different states,” or “between a State and Citizens of another State” (U.S. Const. art. III, § 2). 

Although Eleventh amendment may not have achieved its objectives to define federalism, maintain national supremacy, and afford protection for the states, it has considerably attainted its goal in limiting the power of federal courts in hearing lawsuits against state governments brought by the citizens of another state or the citizens of a foreign country. 

[1] 109 U.S. 446 (U.S. 1883)

[2] 134 U.S. 1 (U.S. 1890)

[3]190 B.R. 419 (Bankr. E.D. Okla. 1995)

[4] 134 U.S. 22 (U.S. 1890)

[5] Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (U.S. 1976)

Updated till: 10-26-2009


Inside Amendment XI – Suits Against a State (1795)