Eleventh Amendment: State Sovereign Immunity

Explore the historical context, legal interpretations, and implications of the Eleventh Amendment and state sovereign immunity, which shields states from certain legal liabilities and impacts civil rights litigation and intellectual property law.

The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution is a critical component of American jurisprudence, particularly in the context of state sovereign immunity. This legal doctrine shields states from certain types of legal liability, ensuring that they cannot be sued without their consent. This article will explore the historical context, legal interpretations, and implications of the Eleventh Amendment, providing a comprehensive guide to understanding state sovereign immunity.

Historical Context

The Origins of State Sovereign Immunity

State sovereign immunity has its roots in the English common law principle that "the King can do no wrong," which protected the sovereign from being sued without consent. This principle was carried over to the American legal system, where it was adapted to fit the federal structure of the United States.

The Chisholm v. Georgia Case

The landmark case of Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) played a pivotal role in shaping the doctrine of state sovereign immunity. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that states could be sued by citizens of another state. This decision was met with significant backlash, leading to the swift adoption of the Eleventh Amendment.

Adoption of the Eleventh Amendment

The Eleventh Amendment was ratified on February 7, 1795, in response to the Chisholm decision. The text of the amendment is 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."

This amendment effectively overturned the Chisholm decision and established the principle that states enjoy sovereign immunity from certain types of lawsuits.

General Scope of State Sovereign Immunity

The scope of state sovereign immunity has been the subject of extensive judicial interpretation. The Supreme Court has clarified that the Eleventh Amendment not only bars suits against states by citizens of other states but also by the state's own citizens. This interpretation was solidified in cases such as Hans v. Louisiana (1890).

For more detailed information on the general scope of state sovereign immunity, refer to the Constitution Annotated.

Waiver of State Sovereign Immunity

States can waive their sovereign immunity, either explicitly or implicitly. An explicit waiver occurs when a state consents to be sued, often through legislation. An implicit waiver can occur when a state engages in activities that suggest consent to be sued, such as entering into a contract.

For more information on the waiver of state sovereign immunity, see the Constitution Annotated.

Congressional Abrogation

Congress has the power to abrogate state sovereign immunity under certain circumstances. This power is derived from Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants Congress the authority to enforce the provisions of the amendment through appropriate legislation. However, the Supreme Court has set limits on this power, requiring that Congress must make its intention to abrogate immunity unmistakably clear in the statute.

Key Supreme Court Cases

Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996)

In Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that Congress does not have the authority to abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Commerce Clause. This decision marked a significant limitation on Congress's power to subject states to lawsuits.

Alden v. Maine (1999)

In Alden v. Maine, the Supreme Court extended state sovereign immunity to suits brought in state courts, further reinforcing the doctrine's broad scope.

Exceptions to State Sovereign Immunity

There are several notable exceptions to state sovereign immunity:

  1. Ex parte Young Doctrine: This doctrine allows federal courts to issue injunctions against state officials who are violating federal law, effectively bypassing state sovereign immunity.
  2. Bankruptcy Proceedings: The Supreme Court has held that state sovereign immunity does not apply in bankruptcy proceedings.
  3. Federal Enforcement Actions: The federal government can sue states to enforce federal laws.

Implications of State Sovereign Immunity

Impact on Civil Rights Litigation

State sovereign immunity has significant implications for civil rights litigation. It can limit the ability of individuals to seek redress for violations of their constitutional rights by state actors. However, the Ex parte Young doctrine provides a crucial mechanism for challenging unconstitutional state actions.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The constitutionality of the ADA, particularly its provisions allowing individuals to sue states for discrimination, has been a contentious issue. The Supreme Court has upheld the ADA's abrogation of state sovereign immunity in certain contexts, recognizing the importance of protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities.

For more information on the constitutionality of the ADA, refer to the ADA Five-Year Report.

Intellectual Property

State sovereign immunity also affects intellectual property law. States have been sued for copyright infringement, leading to debates over whether Congress can abrogate state immunity in this context. The Supreme Court has addressed this issue in cases such as Allen v. Cooper (2020).

For a detailed report on state sovereign immunity in the context of copyright law, see the Copyright Office Report.


The Eleventh Amendment and the doctrine of state sovereign immunity play a crucial role in the American legal system. They protect states from certain types of legal liability, while also presenting challenges for individuals seeking to hold states accountable for violations of their rights. Understanding the historical context, legal interpretations, and implications of state sovereign immunity is essential for navigating this complex area of law.

For further reading and official resources, refer to the following links:

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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