Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways
483 U.S. 468 (1987)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways, 483 U.S. 468 (1987)

Welch v. Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation

No. 85-1716

Argued March 4, 1987

Decided June 25, 1987

483 U.S. 468

Syllabus

Petitioner, an employee of the Texas Highways Department, was injured while working on a ferry dock operated by the Department. She filed suit against the Department and the State under § 33 of the Jones Act, which provides that any seaman injured in the course of his employment may maintain an action for damages at law in federal district court, and which, in effect, applies the remedial provisions of the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA) to such suits. The District Court dismissed the action as barred by the Eleventh Amendment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Although recognizing that Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept.,377 U. S. 184, held that an employee of a state-operated railroad may bring an FELA action in federal court, the Court of Appeals held that the decision was inapplicable in light of Congress' failure to include in the Jones Act an unmistakably clear expression of its intention to abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court. The court also held that Texas had not consented to being sued under the Jones Act.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

780 F.2d 1268, affirmed.

JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concluded that the Eleventh Amendment bars a state employee from suing the State in federal court under the Jones Act. Pp. 483 U. S. 472-495.

(a) Even though the express terms of the Eleventh Amendment's prohibition are limited to federal court suits "in law or equity" against a State by citizens of another State or a foreign country, the Amendment bars a citizen from suing his own State, Hans v. Louisiana,134 U. S. 1, and prohibits admiralty suits against a State, Ex parte New York, No. 1,256 U. S. 490, unless the State expressly waives its immunity and consents to suit in federal court. Moreover, assuming that Congress can abrogate the Eleventh Amendment when it acts pursuant to the Commerce Clause, it must express its intent to do so in unmistakable language in the statute itself. Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon,473 U. S. 234. Pp. 483 U. S. 472-474.

Page 483 U. S. 469

(b) Congress has not expressed in unmistakable statutory language its intention to allow States to be sued in federal court under the Jones Act. Although the Act extends to "[a]ny" injured seaman, this general authorization for federal court suits is not the kind of unequivocal statutory language that is sufficient to abrogate the Eleventh Amendment, which marks a constitutional distinction between the States and other employers of seamen. Moreover, since both lower courts rejected petitioner's contention that Texas waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, and since the petition for certiorari does not address this issue, it need not be considered here. Pp. 483 U. S. 474-476.

(c) To the extent that Parden is inconsistent with the requirement that an abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity by Congress must be expressed in unmistakably clear language, it is overruled. Pp. 483 U. S. 476-478.

(d) Hans, which firmly established that the Eleventh Amendment embodies a broad constitutional principle of sovereign immunity, and the long line of subsequent cases that reaffirmed that principle, will not be overruled in the absence of "special justification" for such a departure from the doctrine of stare decisis. The argument that the Amendment does not bar citizens' federal question actions against the States in federal court is not persuasive for several reasons. The historical records show that, at most, the intentions of the Constitution's Framers and Ratifiers were ambiguous on the subject. Moreover, since federal question actions unquestionably are "suits in law or equity," the plain language of the Amendment refutes the argument. Nor does the argument offer any satisfactory explanation for the overwhelming rejection of another amendment that would have allowed citizen suits against States for causes of action arising under treaties. The principle of sovereign immunity has been deeply embedded in our federal system since its inception, and is required because of the sensitive problems inherent in making one sovereign appear against its will in the courts of another. That States may not be sued absent waiver or congressional enactment is a necessary consequence of their role in a system of dual sovereignties. Pp. 483 U. S. 478-488.

(e) The argument that the sovereign immunity doctrine has no application to citizens' admiralty suits against unconsenting States in federal courts is directly contrary to long-settled authority, including Ex parte New York, No. 1. The suggestion that the latter case overruled settled law allowing such suits is not supported by the earlier cases cited, which, on balance, indicate that unconsenting States were immune from admiralty suits, and, at the very least, demonstrate that the question was not "settled." Pp. 483 U. S. 488-493.

Page 483 U. S. 470

JUSTICE SCALIA concluded that, regardless of the correctness of Hans as an original matter, Congress enacted the Jones Act and the FELA provisions which it incorporates on the assumption that, as Hans appears to have held, Article III of the Constitution contains an implicit limitation on suits brought by individuals against States. The statutes cannot now be read to apply to States as though that assumption never existed. Thus, Parden is properly overruled. Pp. 483 U. S. 495-496.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post p. 483 U. S. 495. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post p. 483 U. S. 495. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post p. 483 U. S. 496.

Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.