Alden v. Maine
527 U.S. 706 (1999)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1998

Syllabus

ALDEN ET AL. v. MAINE

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE

No. 98-436. Argued March 31, 1999-Decided June 23,1999

Mter this Court decided, in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U. S. 44, that Congress lacks power under Article I to abrogate the States' sovereign immunity in federal court, the Federal District Court dismissed a Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 suit filed by petitioners against their employer, respondent Maine. Subsequently, petitioners filed the same action in state court. Although the FLSA purports to authorize private actions against States in their own courts, the trial court dismissed the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

Held:

1. The Constitution's structure and history and this Court's authoritative interpretations make clear that the States' immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty they enjoyed before the Constitution's ratification and retain today except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments. Under the federal system established by the Constitution, the States retain a "residuary and inviolable sovereignty." The Federalist No. 39, p. 245. They are not relegated to the role of mere provinces or political corporations, but retain the dignity, though not the full authority, of sovereignty. The founding generation considered immunity from private suits central to this dignity. The doctrine that a sovereign could not be sued without its consent was universal in the States when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. In addition, the leading advocates of the Constitution gave explicit assurances during the ratification debates that the Constitution would not strip States of sovereign immunity. This was also the understanding of those state conventions that addressed state sovereign immunity in their ratification documents. When, just five years after the Constitution's adoption, this Court held that Article III authorized a private citizen of another State to sue Georgia without its consent, Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, the Eleventh Amendment was ratified. An examination of Chisholm indicates that the case, not the Amendment, deviated from the original understanding, which was to preserve States' traditional immunity from suit. The Amendment's text and history also suggest that Congress acted not to change but to restore the original constitutional design. Finally, the swiftness and near unanimity with which the Amendment was adopted indicate that


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the Court had not captured the original understanding. This Court's subsequent decisions reflect a settled doctrinal understanding that sovereign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the structure of the original Constitution. Since the Amendment confirmed rather than established sovereign immunity as a constitutional principal, it follows that that immunity's scope is demarcated not by the text of the Amendment alone but by fundamental postulates implicit in the constitutional design. Pp. 712-730.

2. The States' immunity from private suit in their own courts is beyond congressional power to abrogate by Article I legislation. Pp. 730-754.

(a) Congress may exercise its Article I powers to subject States to private suits in their own courts only if there is compelling evidence that States were required to surrender this power to Congress pursuant to the constitutional design. Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, 501 U. S. 775, 781. pp. 730-731.

(b) Neither the Constitution's text nor the Court's recent sovereign immunity decisions establish that States were required to relinquish this portion of their sovereignty. Pp. 731-740.

(1) The Constitution, by delegating to Congress the power to establish the supreme law of the land when acting within its enumerated powers, does not foreclose a State from asserting immunity to claims arising under federal law merely because that law derives not from the State itself but from the national power. See, e. g., Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U. S. 1. Moreover, the specific Article I powers delegated to Congress do not necessarily include the incidental authority to subject States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the enumerated powers' scope. Those decisions that have endorsed this contention, see, e. g., Parden v. Terminal R. Co. of Ala. Docks Dept., 377 U. S. 184, 190-194, have been overruled, see, e. g., College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd., ante, at 680. Pp. 731-735.

(2) Isolated statements in some of this Court's cases suggest that the Eleventh Amendment is inapplicable in state courts. This is a truism as to the Amendment's literal terms. However, the Amendment's bare text is not an exhaustive description of States' constitutional immunity, and the cases do not decide the question whether States retain immunity in their own courts notwithstanding an attempted abrogation by Congress. pp. 735-740.

(c) Whether Congress has the authority under Article I to abrogate a State's immunity in its own courts is, then, a question of first impression. History, practice, precedent, and the Constitution's structure


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Full Text of Opinion

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