The first amendment to the United States Constitution following the Bill of Rights is the Eleventh Amendment, which 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.”
This Amendment was ratified in 1795 in response to the Supreme Court decision in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). The case came from the Revolutionary War, when Captain Robert Farquhar, a resident of South Carolina, supplied goods to the state of Georgia for which Georgia did not fully pay. Farquhar died in 1784. In 1792, Alexander Chisholm, the executor of Farquhar’s estate, filed suit against Georgia in the US Supreme Court over payment that Georgia still owed for the goods. US Attorney General Edmund Randolph argued the case for Chisholm, but government officials in Georgia claimed sovereign immunity and refused to appear. The Court found by a 4-1 margin that the grant of federal jurisdiction over suits “between a State and Citizens of another State” in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution granted federal courts the power to hear cases between private citizens and States, and that States did not enjoy sovereign immunity in such cases.
The Eleventh Amendment was written mostly for the purpose of overturning the Chisholm decision, which stands as one of only a handful of court rulings to be overturned by a Constitutional amendment. The ruling in Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798) held that every pending action under Chisholm had to be dismissed due to the ratification of the Eleventh Amendment. The only remaining way at the time for a state to be sued by non-residents of the state was for that state to consent to the suit.
Since then, three Supreme Court cases have made further exceptions to a state’s sovereign immunity. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer (1976) held that Congress may abrogate the sovereign immunity of a state pursuant to a valid exercise of the Fourteenth Amendment, Central Virginia Community College v. Katz (2006) held that Congress may do the same in bankruptcy cases through Article I, Section 8, Clause 4, and Lapides v. Board of Regents of University System of Georgia (2002) held that a state waives the Eleventh Amendment if it invokes a federal court’s removal jurisdiction, which is the right of a defendant to move a lawsuit filed in state court to the federal district court for that location.
To make a case against the Eleventh Amendment, we will first note the problems with its interpretation, then we will examine the failings of the doctrine of sovereign immunity in general, as refuting this doctrine defeats the Eleventh Amendment a fortiori.
The first thing to note is that the interpretation of this amendment, like every other part of the Constitution, is decided by judges who are paid by the state in courts which are monopolized by the state. Thus, the Eleventh Amendment means whatever people in black costumes say it means, which need not be in keeping with common usage or dictionary definitions because effective challenges to their power once the appeals process is exhausted are almost nonexistent. (There are the possibilities that a judge will be impeached and removed or that the Constitution will be amended, but these possibilities are rare enough to dismiss in most cases. Chisholm and the Eleventh Amendment are a rare exception to the latter.) The incentive of people who are paid by the state is to encourage the health of the state, which means erring on the side of expanding the size and scope of government, kowtowing to popular opinion rather than handing down consistent rulings, and reducing government accountability. This constitutes a threat to individual liberty and tends toward the curtailment of civil liberties.
In their interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment, the Court has consistently sided with state governments and expanded sovereign immunity beyond the text of the Amendment. The Court has shielded states from nearly all monetary damage actions brought in any court. The text does not mention a state’s own citizens, but in Hans v. Louisiana (1890), the Court interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to give a state sovereign immunity against citizens of that state. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority in Alden v. Maine (1999),
“[S]overeign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the structure of the original Constitution itself. … Nor can we conclude that the specific Article I powers delegated to Congress necessarily include, by virtue of the Necessary and Proper Clause or otherwise, the incidental authority to subject the States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the scope of the enumerated powers.”
This, despite what Justice David Souter observed in the dissenting opinion,
“The 1787 draft in fact said nothing on the subject, and it was this very silence that occasioned some, though apparently not widespread, dispute among the Framers and others over whether ratification of the Constitution would preclude a State sued in federal court from asserting sovereign immunity as it could have done on any matter of nonfederal law litigated in its own courts.”
Souter’s dissent in Seminole Tribe v. Florida (1996), another 5-4 decision defending sovereign immunity, is also illuminating:
“There is almost no evidence that the generation of the Framers thought sovereign immunity was fundamental in the sense of being unalterable. Whether one looks at the period before the framing, to the ratification controversies, or to the early republican era, the evidence is the same. Some Framers thought sovereign immunity was an obsolete royal prerogative inapplicable in a republic; some thought sovereign immunity was a common-law power defeasible, like other common-law rights, by statute; and perhaps a few thought, in keeping with a natural law view distinct from the common-law conception, that immunity was inherent in a sovereign because the body that made a law could not logically be bound by it. Natural law thinking on the part of a doubtful few will not, however, support the Court’s position. […] [S]everal colonial charters, including those of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Georgia, expressly specified that the corporate body established thereunder could sue and be sued.”
Souter’s dissents demonstrate that there is no textual basis in the Constitution for sovereign immunity. But even if there were, the concept should still be opposed. In the next two sections, we will see why.
Problems With Sovereign Immunity
There are a multitude of problems with the concept of sovereign immunity. First, sovereign immunity denies compensation to victims of statism. Those whose rights are grossly violated by government agents are deprived of a redress of grievances by sovereign immunity, as well as meaningful peaceful recourse. Second, immunity for government agents denies due process to the citizenry because due process requires a judicial forum, which sovereign immunity denies to those whose cases are dismissed on such grounds. Third, the unwillingness of courts to hear cases in which states violate legal provisions that are intended to limit state power can render those provisions unenforceable, and an unenforceable law is functionally equivalent to no law at all. The people are thus left to rely on the good faith of governments that they will not abuse the people, which if history is any guide, is not a realistic strategy.
Fourth, that who are immune from civil damages and criminal punishment are unaccountable is a tautology, so sovereign immunity is obviously incompatible with government accountability. Fifth, this lack of accountability creates a moral hazard for those who wield state power. Any such unaccountable power is magnetic to the corruptible, who would abuse that power for their personal gain and the health of the state at the expense of the people. Sovereign immunity thus incentivizes the worst people to seek positions in government in order to abuse state power. Sixth, any just system must be no respecter of persons or affiliations. But the doctrine of sovereign immunity creates a double standard; some people may violate the law with impunity while others may not. Thus, equality before the law is impossible in the presence of sovereign immunity.
Finally, the absence of a peaceful method of obtaining justice through an established system means that those who demand justice must either live without or seek justice violently on their own. Though this is morally justified when done by citizens against government agents, there is a greater possibility of irreparable errors being made through vigilante methods than through judicial methods. There is also a risk of chaotic societal breakdown if vigilantism should become normalized in the absence of the organization and alternative institutions necessary to replace the state with a superior form of social order. Eliminating sovereign immunity would open a new avenue for obtaining justice peacefully.
In addition to making the case against sovereign immunity, it is necessary to refute the common arguments in its favor. First, proponents will argue that allowing people to sue the state for damages will endanger the public treasury. This could allow people to gain private ownership of government buildings as payment for civil judgments if the treasury is bankrupt, as well as pass on financial burdens to taxpayers. The standard counterargument is that these concerns are outweighed by the positives of eliminating sovereign immunity that were enumerated in the previous section. The sharper counterargument is that these are features rather than bugs. The money in the public treasury was obtained by demanding money from the citizenry and threatening them with violence for nonpayment. Although a monetary judgment would not, for the most part, return these funds to their rightful owners, the recipients would hold the money more justly than the thieves who call themselves by the euphemism of tax collectors. Government buildings are likewise built and maintained by extorted money, and are generally built upon conquered or otherwise stolen land. Passing on financial burdens to taxpayers is a moral evil, but this could be partially remedied by cleaning out the finances of individual government personnel and/or auctioning government assets before tapping into the treasury. On the other hand, increasing the tax burden on the citizenry may inspire them to either leave the state-sanctioned economy for the informal economy or think in revolutionary terms.
Second, there is the argument that sovereign immunity preserves separation of powers by preventing the judiciary from dominating the executive branch. But because a lack of ability to sue the government removes accountability, neuters provisions that limit state power, and creates moral hazard, sovereign immunity removes the very sort of checks and balances that its proponents claim to protect by keeping the judiciary from restraining the executive branch.
Third, there is the argument that there is no authority in the Constitution or other federal law for suits against the government. This is not an argument for the righteousness of sovereign immunity; only an argument that it currently exists. By this argument, such authority need only be created by Congressional legislation or a Constitutional amendment if it did not already exist. But such authority already does exist under the Constitution in its mandates for due process, government accountability, and the supremacy of federal law.
Fourth, there is the argument that adequate alternative methods for redress exist, making the elimination of sovereign immunity unnecessary. Not only does this argument fail to deal with the problems described above, but there are not always alternative methods. Injunctive relief redresses future violations but not past violations, suing individuals may not produce sufficient civil judgments, and statutes may immunize government agents from suit. This argument would once again leave people to rely on the good faith of governments that they will not only not abuse the people, but will perform restitution when they do.
Finally, defenders of sovereign immunity will appeal to tradition, citing the fact that the United States government has enjoyed some form sovereign immunity for most of its history, as have its constituent states. For example, in United States v. Lee (1886), the Court held that “the United States cannot be lawfully sued without its consent in any case.” But appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy; there should be some other reason for continuing a policy besides its longstanding in order to validate the choice.
It is clear that the doctrine of sovereign immunity causes many problems, and that the arguments in favor of it are easily refuted. Further, there is no basis for it either within the text of the Constitution or in a nonoriginalist view. Repealing the Eleventh Amendment and ending sovereign immunity for US states would be a positive step, but it would not go far enough. As shown above, all sovereign immunity should be ended so that agents of the state may be held to the same moral standard as everyone else and many abuses of power may be prevented.