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In 1793 a resident of South Carolina by the name of Alexander Chisholm took the State of Georgia to court. He claimed that Georgia had failed to pay him for goods he had supplied during the American War of Independence.
Georgia refused the claim and would not co-operate, arguing that it had immunity from being sued by a resident of another state. This immunity, it claimed, was guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, however, felt differently and found in Chisholm’s favor.
The Supreme Court argued that the Constitution allowed that any dispute between a state and someone from another state came within their remit. The result was an outpouring of opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision. It took just two days before Congress had a proposal presented to it which was in due course to become the 11th Amendment.
Interpretation of the 11th Amendment
The aim of the proposal was to overturn the ruling brought by the Supreme Court in the Chisholm case. It comprised 43 words, and the aim was to ensure that federal judicial authority did not extend to disputes involving states and citizens of a different state or a foreign country. Unfortunately in attempting to make things clearer, Congress managed to make things more opaque. There are four different interpretations of the 11th Amendment:
- In the simplest terms, that a state can only be sued in a federal court if it agrees.
- Another interpretation is that a state can be sued by someone from another state or a foreign country, but not by one of its own citizens.
- The exact opposite interpretation is that a state cannot be sued by someone from a different state.
- A more general interpretation allows the principle that a federal court cannot hear a case against a state. Should Congress, for some reason, take away a state’s immunity, then it will no longer enjoy protection from being sued in a federal court.
Exceptions to the 11th Amendment
There are four accepted exceptions to the ban on federal courts hearing these types of cases:
- Lawsuits can be brought in a federal court against municipalities, cities, and counties within a state.
- If a state gives its consent, then a lawsuit against it can be heard in a federal court.
- Where a state itself breaches federal law, it cannot be sued. However, a state official can be ordered to abide by federal law in his or her own name.
- It is possible for Congress to suspend or remove a state’s immunity from being sued in a federal court. Congress has to be seen to be absolutely clear in its reasons for taking this step.
The 11th Amendment supports the legal position that the states that make up the United States are each independent and sovereign. Part of that sovereignty has been handed over to the federal government. This was done voluntarily in order for the states to be part of the USA. In turn, this, then, means that their immunity from being taken to court is also only partial.
The 11th Amendment was passed, and ratified by all the states, in 1795. It was the first amendment to be passed as a reaction to an issue that had arisen in interpreting the laws of the new United States of America.