What Is the 11th Amendment?

C. K. Lanz

The 11th amendment protects a state from judicial action in federal court by a citizen of another state or country. The U.S. Congress passed the amendment in 1794, and it was ratified by 12 of the 15 American states in 1795. This was the first amendment added to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. It is also the first constitutional change adopted to overrule a Supreme Court decision.

The US Constitution.
The US Constitution.

This amendment contains one section that declares that federal courts do not have the authority to hear cases brought by American citizens of one state against another American state. The 11th amendment also prohibits suits in federal court brought by foreign citizens against American states. This language recognizes that each state has some degree of sovereign immunity and is not completely subordinate to the federal government.

The 11th Amendment was the first change to the Constitution that overruled a Supreme Court ruling.
The 11th Amendment was the first change to the Constitution that overruled a Supreme Court ruling.

The Supreme Court’s 1793 decision in Chisholm v. Georgia was the primary catalyst of the 11th amendment. The executor of a South Carolina citizen’s estate sued Georgia, alleging that the state owed unpaid debts from the Revolutionary War era. Such suits were unpleasant for some states that were hoping to avoid Revolutionary War debt payments.

The court ruled in Chisholm that federal courts have the authority to hear cases private citizens bring against states. The states are therefore not immune from suits brought by citizens of other states. The reasoning was based on the notion that the states gave up their sovereign immunity when they ratified the Constitution. The ruling created additional tensions between the states and the federal government.

In response, the 11th amendment prohibited judicial action by citizens of one state against another defendant state. This doctrine was later expanded in the 1890 Supreme Court ruling in Hans v. Louisiana. The court held that the 11th amendment also forbade suits brought by citizens of the defendant state. In the wake of the Hans case, the amendment was interpreted as prohibiting all suits by private citizens against states, but other states and the federal government could still bring a judicial action.

By prohibiting private parties from suing states, the states became almost completely shielded from federal law. In an attempt to balance the rights of the states with those of the federal government, the Supreme Court developed and adopted a legal fiction known as the Stripping Doctrine. This exception to the 11th amendment strips a state official of the state’s immunity when he or she acts unconstitutionally.

Under the Stripping Doctrine, a private citizen can sue a state official for injunctive relief despite the state’s 11th amendment sovereign immunity. When a state official acts unconstitutionally, he or she is beyond the scope of his or her authority and therefore has not been authorized by the state. As he or she has not been authorized by the state to engage in unconstitutional actions, the state official cannot invoke the state’s sovereign immunity.

Congress first proposed the 11th amendment on 4 March 1794. New York was the first state to ratify the amendment on 27 March 1794. South Carolina was the last state to ratify it approximately one year later. An amendment must be ratified by two thirds of the states before it will be certified and formally adopted.

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