Ex Parte Young,
209 U.S. 123 (1908)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)

Ex Parte Young

No. 10, Original

Argued December 2, 3, 1907

Decided March 23, 1908

209 U.S. 123


While this court will not take jurisdiction if it should not, it must take jurisdiction if it should. It cannot, as the legislature may, avoid meeting a measure because it desires so to do.

In this case, a suit by a stockholder against a corporation to enjoin the directors and officers from complying with the provisions of a State statute, alleged to be unconstitutional, was properly brought within Equity Rule 94 of this court.

An order of the Circuit Court committing one for contempt for violation of a decree entered in a suit of which it did not have jurisdiction is unlawful, and, in such case, upon proper application, this court will discharge the person so held.

Page 209 U. S. 124

Although the determination of whether a railway rate prescribed by a state statute is so low as to be confiscatory involves a question of fact, its solution raises a Federal question, and the sufficiency of rates is a judicial question over which the proper Circuit Court has jurisdiction, as one arising under the Constitution of the United States.

Whether a state statute is unconstitutional because the penalties for its violation are so enormous that persons affected thereby are prevented from resorting to the courts for the purpose of determining the validity of the statute, and are thereby denied the equal protection of the law, and their property rendered liable to be taken without due process of law, is a Federal question and gives the Circuit Court jurisdiction.

Whether the state railroad rate statute involved in this case, although on its face relating only to intrastate rates, was an interference with interstate commerce held to raise a Federal question which could not be considered frivolous.

A state railroad rate statute which imposes such excessive penalties that parties affected are deterred from testing its validity in the courts denies the carrier the equal protection of the law without regard to the question of insufficiency of the rates prescribed; it is within the jurisdiction, and is the duty, of the Circuit Court to inquire whether such rates are so low as to be confiscatory, and, if so, to permanently enjoin the railroad company, at the suit of one of its stockholders, from putting them in force, and it has power pending such inquiry to grant a temporary injunction to the same effect.

While there is no rule permitting a person to disobey a statute with impunity at least once for the purpose of testing its validity, where such validity can only be determined by judicial investigation and construction, a provision in the statute which imposes such severe penalties for disobedience of its provisions as to intimidate the parties affected thereby from resorting to the courts to test its validity practically prohibits those parties from seeking such judicial construction, and denies them the equal protection of the law.

The attempt of a State officer to enforce an unconstitutional statute is a proceeding without authority of, and does not affect, the State in its sovereign or governmental capacity, and is an illegal act, and the officer is stripped of his official character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct. The State has no power to impart to its officer immunity from responsibility to the supreme authority of the United States.

When the question of the validity of a State statute with reference to the Federal Constitution has been first raised in a Federal court, that court has the right to decide it to the exclusion of all other courts.

It is not necessary that the duty of a State officer to enforce a statute be declared in that statute itself in order to permit his being joined as a party defendant from enforcing it; if, by virtue of his office, he has some connection with the enforcement of the act, it is immaterial whether it arises by common general law or by statute.

Page 209 U. S. 125

While the courts cannot control the exercise of the discretion of an executive officer, an injunction preventing such officer from enforcing an unconstitutional statute is not an interference with his discretion.

The Attorney General of the State of Minnesota, under his common law power and the state statutes, has the general authority imposed upon him of enforcing constitutional statutes of the State, and is a proper party defendant to a suit brought to prevent the enforcement of a State statute on the ground of its unconstitutionality.

While a Federal court cannot interfere in a criminal case already pending in a state court, and while, as a general rule, a court of equity cannot enjoin criminal proceedings, those rules do not apply when such proceedings are brought to enforce an alleged unconstitutional state statute, after the unconstitutionality thereof has become the subject of inquiry in a suit pending in a Federal court which has first obtained jurisdiction thereover; and, under such circumstances, the Federal court has the right in both civil and criminal cases to hold and maintain such jurisdiction to the exclusion of all other courts.

While making a state officer who has no connection with the enforcement of an act alleged to be unconstitutional a party defendant is merely making him a party as a representative of the State, and thereby amounts to making the State a party within the prohibition of the Eleventh Amendment, individuals, who, as officers of the State, are clothed with some duty in regard to the enforcement of the laws of the State, and who threaten and are about to commence an action, either civil or criminal, to enforce an unconstitutional state statute, may be enjoined from so doing by a Federal court.

Under such conditions as are involved in this case, the Federal court may enjoin an individual or a state officer from enforcing a state statute on account of its unconstitutionality, but it may not restrain the state court from acting in any case brought before it either of a civil or criminal nature, or prevent any investigation or action by a grand jury.

An injunction by a Federal court against a State court would violate the whole scheme of this Government, and it does not follow that, because an individual may be enjoined from doing certain things, a court may be similarly enjoined.

No adequate remedy at law, sufficient to prevent a court of equity from acting, exists in a case where the enforcement of an unconstitutional state rate statute would require the complainant to carry merchandise at confiscatory rates if it complied with the statute, and subject it to excessive penalties in case it did not comply therewith, and its validity was finally sustained.

While a common carrier sued at common law for penalties under, or on indictment for violation of, a state rate statute might interpose as a defense the unconstitutionality of the statute on account of the confiscatory character of the rates prescribed, a jury cannot intelligently pass upon such a matter; the proper method is to determine the constitutionality of the statute in a court of equity in which the opinions of experts may be

Page 209 U. S. 126

taken and the matter referred to a master to make the needed computations and to find the necessary facts on which the court may act.

A state rate statute is to be regarded as prima facie valid, and the onus rests on the carrier to prove the contrary.

The railroad interests of this country are of great magnitude, and the thousands of persons interested therein are entitled to protection from the laws and from the courts equally with the owners of all other kinds of property, and the courts having jurisdiction, whether Federal or State, should at all times be open to them, and, where there is no adequate remedy at law, the proper course to protect their rights is by suit in equity in which all interested parties are made defendants.

While injunctions against the enforcement of a State rate statute should not be granted by a Federal court except in a case reasonably free from doubt, the equity jurisdiction of the Federal court has been constantly exercised for such purpose.

The Circuit Court of the United States having, in an action brought by a stockholder of the Northern Pacific Railway Company against the officers of the road, certain shippers, and the Attorney General and certain other officials of the State of Minnesota, held that a railroad rate statute of Minnesota was unconstitutional, and enjoined all the defendants from enforcing such statute, and, the Attorney General having refused to comply with such order, the Circuit Court fined and committed him for contempt, and this court refused to discharge him on habeas corpus.

An original application was made to this court for leave to file a petition for writs of habeas corpus and certiorari in behalf of Edward T. Young, petitioner, as Attorney General of the State of Minnesota.

Leave was granted and a rule entered directing the United States marshal for the district of Minnesota, third division, who held the petitioner in his custody, to show cause why such petition should not be granted.

The marshal, upon the return of the order to show cause, justified his detention on the petitioner by virtue of an order of the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Minnesota, which adjudged the petitioner guilty of contempt of that court, and directed that he be fined the sum of $100, and that he should dismiss the mandamus proceedings brought by him in the name and in behalf of the State, in the Circuit Court of the State, and that he should stand committed to the custody of the marshal until that order was obeyed. The case

Page 209 U. S. 127

involves the validity of the order of the Circuit Court committing him for contempt.

The facts are these: the legislature of the State of Minnesota duly created a railroad and warehouse commission, and that commission, on the 6th of September, 1906, made an order fixing the rates for the various railroad companies for the carriage of merchandise between stations in that State of the kind and classes specified in what is known as the "Western Classification." These rates materially reduced those then existing, and were, by the order, to take effect November 15, 1906. In obedience to the order, the railroads filed and published the schedules of rates, which have, ever since that time, been carried out by the companies.

At the time of the making of the above order, it was provided by the Revised Laws of Minnesota, 1905 (§ 1987), that any common carrier who violated the provisions of that section or willfully suffered any such unlawful act or omission, when no specific penalty is imposed therefor,

"if a natural person, shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor, and shall be punished by a fine of not less than $2,500, nor more than $5,000 for the first offense, and not less than $5,000 nor more than $10,000 for each subsequent offense; and, if such carrier or warehouseman be a corporation, it shall forfeit to the State for the first offense not less than $2,500 nor more than $5,000, and for each subsequent offense not less than $5,000 nor more than $10,000, to be recovered in a civil action."

This provision covered disobedience to the orders of the commission.

On the 4th of April, 1907, the legislature of the State of Minnesota passed an act fixing 2 cents a mile as the maximum passenger rate to be charged by railroads in Minnesota. (The rate had been theretofore 3 cents per mile.) The act was to take effect on the 1st of May, 1907, and was put into effect on that day by the railroad companies, and the same

Page 209 U. S. 128

has been observed by them up to the present time. It was provided in the act that

"any railroad company, or any officer, agent, or representative thereof, who shall violate any provision of this act, shall be guilty of a felony, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand ($5,000) dollars, or by imprisonment in the state prison for a period not exceeding five (5) years, or both such fine and imprisonment."

On the 18th of April, 1907, the legislature passed an act (chapter 232 of the laws of that year), which established rates for the transportation of certain commodities (not included in the Western Classification) between stations in that State. The act divided the commodities to which it referred into seven classes, and set forth a schedule of maximum rates for each class when transported in carload lots, and established the minimum weight which constituted a carload of each class.

Section 5 provided that it should not affect the power or authority of the railroad and warehouse commission, except that no duty should rest upon that commission to enforce any rates specifically fixed by the act or any other statute of the State. The section further provided generally that the orders made by the railroad and warehouse commission prescribing rates should be the exclusive legal maximum rates for the transportation of the commodities enumerated in the act between points within that State.

Section 6 directed that every railroad company in the State should adopt and publish and put into effect the rates specified in the statute, and that every officer, director, traffic manager, or agent, or employee of such railroad company should cause the adoption, publication, and use by such railroad company of rates not exceeding those specified in the act,

"and any officer, director, or such agent or employee of any such railroad company who violates any of the provisions of this section, or who causes or counsels, advises or assists, any such railroad company to violate any of the provisions of this section, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and may be prosecuted therefor

Page 209 U. S. 129

in any county into which its railroad extends, and in which it has a station, and upon a conviction thereof be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a period not exceeding ninety days."

The act was to take effect June 1, 1907.

The railroad companies did not obey the provisions of this act so far as concerned the adoption and publication of rates as specified therein.

On the 31st of May, 1907, the day before the act was to take effect, nine suits in equity were commenced in the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Minnesota, third division, each suit being brought by stockholders of the particular railroad mentioned in the bill, and in each case the defendants named were the railroad company of which the complainants were, respectively, stockholders, and the members of the railroad and warehouse commission, and the Attorney General of the State, Edward T. Young, and individual defendants, representing the shippers of freight upon the railroad.

The order punishing Mr. Young for contempt was made in the suit in which Charles E. Perkins, a citizen of the State of Iowa, and David C. Shepare, a citizen of the State of Minnesota, were complainants, and the Northern Pacific Railway Company, a corporation organized under the laws of the State of Wisconsin, Edward T. Young, petitioner herein, and others, were parties defendant. All of the defendants, except the railway company, are citizens and residents of the State of Minnesota.

It was averred in the bill that the suit was not a collusive one to confer on the court jurisdiction of a case of which it could not otherwise have cognizance, but that the objects and purposes of the suit were to enjoin the railway company from publishing or adopting (or continuing to observe, if already adopted) the rates and tariffs prescribed and set forth in the two acts of the legislature above mentioned and in the orders of the railroad and warehouse commission, and also to enjoin the other defendants from attempting to enforce such provisions, or from instituting any action or proceeding against

Page 209 U. S. 130

the defendant railway company, its officers, etc., on account of any violation thereof, for the reason that the said acts and orders were and each of them was violative of the Constitution of the United States.

The bill also alleged that the orders of the railroad commission of September 6, 1906, May 3, 1907, the passenger rate act of April 4, 1907, and the act of April 18, 1907, reducing the tariffs and charges which the railway company had theretofore been permitted to make, were each and all of them unjust, unreasonable, and confiscatory, in that they each of them would, and will if enforced, deprive complainants and the railway company of their property without due process of law, and deprive them and it of the equal protection of the laws, contrary to and in violation of the Constitution of the United States and the amendments thereof. It was also averred that the complainants had demanded of the president and managing directors of the railway company that they should cease obedience to the orders of the commission dated September 6, 1906, and May 3, 1907, and to the acts already mentioned, and that the rates prescribed in such orders and acts should not be put into effect, and that the said corporation, its officers and directors, should institute proper suit or suits to prevent said rates (named in the orders and in the acts of the legislature) from continuing or becoming effective, as the case might be, and to have the same declared illegal; but the said corporation, its president and directors, had positively declined and refused to do so, not because they considered the rates a fair and just return upon the capital invested, or that they would not be confiscatory, but because of the severity of the penalties provided for the violation of such acts and orders, and therefore they could not subject themselves to the ruinous consequences which would inevitably result from failure on their part to obey the said laws and orders -- a result which no action by themselves, their stockholders or directors, could possibly prevent.

The bill further alleged that the orders of the commission

Page 209 U. S. 131

of September, 1906, and May, 1907, and the acts of April 4, 1907, and April 18, 1907, were, in the penalties prescribed for their violation, so drastic that no owner or operator of a railway property could invoke the jurisdiction of any court to test the validity thereof except at the risk of confiscation of its property and the imprisonment for long terms in jails and penitentiaries of its officers, agents, and employees. For this reason, the complainants alleged that the above-mentioned orders and acts, and each of them, denied to the defendant railway company and its stockholders, including the complainants, the equal protection of the laws, and deprived it and them of their property without due process of law, and that each of them was, for that reason, unconstitutional and void.

The bill also contained an averment that, if the railway company should fail to continue to observe and keep in force, or to observe and put in force, the orders of the commission and the acts of April 4, 1907, and April 18, 1907, such failure might result in an action against the company or criminal proceedings against its officers, directors, agents, or employees, subjecting the company and such officers to an endless number of actions at law and criminal proceedings; that, if the company should fail to obey the order of the commission or the acts of April 4, 1907, and April 18, 1907, the said Edward T. Young, as Attorney General of the State of Minnesota, would, as complainants were advised and believed, institute proceedings by mandamus or otherwise against the railway company, its officers, directors, agents, or employees, to enforce said orders and all the provisions thereof, and that he threatened and would take other proceedings against the company, its officers, etc., to the same end and for the same purpose, and that he would, on such failure, institute mandamus or other proceedings for the purpose of enforcing said acts and each thereof, and the provisions and penalties thereof. Appropriate relief by injunction against the action of the defendant Young and the railroad commission was asked for.

Page 209 U. S. 132

A temporary restraining order was made by the Circuit Court, which only restrained the railway company from publishing the rates as provided for in the act of April 18, 1907, and from reducing its tariffs to the figures set forth in that act, the court refusing for the present to interfere by injunction with regard to the orders of the commission and the act of April 4, 1907, as the railroads had already put them in operation; but it restrained Edward T. Young, Attorney General, from taking any steps against the railroads to enforce the remedies or penalties specified in the act of April 18, 1907.

Copies of the bill and the restraining order were served, among others, upon the defendant Mr. Edward T. Young, Attorney General, who appeared specially and only for the purpose of moving to dismiss the bill as to him, on the ground that the court had no jurisdiction over him as Attorney General; and he averred that the State of Minnesota had not consented, and did not consent, to the commencement of this suit against him as Attorney General of the State, which suit was, in truth and effect, a suit against the said State of Minnesota contrary to the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

The Attorney General also filed a demurrer to the bill on the same ground stated in the motion to dismiss. The motion was denied and the demurrer overruled.

Thereupon, on the 23d of September, 1907, the court, after a hearing of all parties and taking proofs in regard to the issues involved, ordered a temporary injunction to issue against the railway company restraining it, pending the final hearing of the cause, from putting into effect the tariffs, rates, or charges set forth in the act approved April 18, 1907. The court also enjoined the defendant Young, as Attorney General of the State of Minnesota, pending the final hearing of the cause, from taking or instituting any action or proceeding to enforce the penalties and remedies specified in the act above mentioned, or to compel obedience to that act, or compliance therewith, or any part thereof.

Page 209 U. S. 133

As the court refused to grant any preliminary injunction restraining the enforcement of the rates fixed by the railroad and warehouse commission, or the passenger rates under the act of April 4, 1907, because the same had been accepted by the railroads and were in operation, the court stated that, in omitting the granting of such preliminary injunction, the necessity was obviated upon that hearing of determining whether the rates fixed by the commission, or the passenger rates, together or singly, were confiscatory and did not afford reasonable compensation for the service rendered and a proper allowance for the property employed, and, for those reasons, that question had not been considered; but inasmuch as the rates fixed by the act of April 18, 1907, had not gone into force, the court observed:

"It seems to me, upon this evidence of the conditions before either of those new rates were put into effect (that is, the order of the commission of September, 1906, or the act of April 4, 1907) and the reductions made by those rates, that, if there is added the reduction which is attempted to be made by the commodity act (April 18, 1907), it will reduce the compensation received by the companies below what would be a fair compensation for the services performed, including an adequate return upon the property invested. And I think, on the whole, that a preliminary injunction should issue in respect to the rates fixed by chapter 232 (act of April 18), talked of as the commodity rates, and that there should be no preliminary injunction as to the other rates, although the matter as to whether they are compensatory or not is a matter which may be determined in the final determination of the action."

The day after the granting of this preliminary injunction, the Attorney General, in violation of such injunction, filed a petition for an alternative writ of mandamus in one of the courts of the State, and obtained an order from that court September 24, 1907, directing the alternative writ to issue as prayed for in the petition. The writ was thereafter issued and served upon the Northern Pacific Railway Company,

Page 209 U. S. 134

commanding the company, immediately after its receipt,

"to adopt and publish and keep for public inspection, as provided by law, as the rates and charges to be made, demanded, and maintained by you for the transportation of freight between stations in the State of Minnesota of the kind, character, and class named and specified in chapter 232 of the Session Laws of the State of Minnesota for the year 1907, rates and charges which do not exceed those declared to be just and reasonable in and by the terms and provisions of said chapter 232. . . ."

Upon an affidavit showing these facts, the United States Circuit Court ordered Mr. Young to show cause why he should not be punished as for a contempt for his misconduct in violating the temporary injunction issued by that court in the case therein pending.

Upon the return of this order, the Attorney General filed his answer, in which he set up the same objections which he had made to the jurisdiction of the court in his motion to dismiss the bill, and in his demurrer; he disclaimed any intention to treat the court with disrespect in the commencement of the proceedings referred to, but, believing that the decision of the court in the action, holding that it had jurisdiction to enjoin him, as Attorney General, from performing his discretionary official duties, was in conflict with the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, as the same has been interpreted and applied by the United States Supreme Court, he believed it to be his duty, as such Attorney General, to commence the mandamus proceedings for and in behalf of the State, and it was in this belief that the proceedings were commenced solely for the purpose of enforcing the law of the State of Minnesota. The order adjudging him in contempt was then made.

Page 209 U. S. 142

Primary Holding

If government officials attempt to enforce an unconstitutional law, sovereign immunity does not prevent people whom the law harms from suing those officials in their individual capacity for injunctive relief. This is because they are not acting on behalf of the state in this situation.


Minnesota imposed harsh penalties on railroads that violated state limits on what they could charge within the state. Northern Pacific Railway shareholders asserted that the laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment and the Dormant Commerce Clause, that the railroads should be released from the need to comply with the law, and that state Attorney General Edward T. Young should be enjoined from enforcing the law. The federal court granted the request for an injunction, since it was unpersuaded by Young that the Eleventh Amendment removed its jurisdiction over a case in which a state was sued by a citizen of another state (in this case, the shareholders).

Having lost the case in federal court, Young brought an action in state court that would have required the railroads to comply with the law. His claim was based on the same argument that had failed in federal court, so Young was held in contempt and taken into custody by a U.S. Marshal. He filed for a writ of habeas corpus for his release.



  • Rufus Wheeler Peckham (Author)
  • David Josiah Brewer
  • Melville Weston Fuller
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Joseph McKenna
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
  • William Rufus Day
  • William Henry Moody

The majority was forced to reconcile the Eleventh Amendment's ban on individuals suing states with the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that states respect the due process rights of individuals. Although Peckham easily found that the Minnesota laws were unconstitutional, he still needed to resolve whether the state could be prevented from enforcing them. He found that the prohibition on suing a state itself did not need to be extended to a prohibition against an injunction requiring a state official to act or not act in a certain way on the state's behalf. Peckham also was sympathetic to parties facing harsh penalties under a law that was likely unconstitutional, and he felt that they should have the opportunity to challenge it before being subject to sanctions. Young had suggested that the railroads could comply with the law while they waited to test it in the courts. This would force them to incur unnecessarily onerous costs, according to the majority.

Rejecting Young's argument that he was acting on behalf of the state, the Court found that an official who engages in an unconstitutional action cannot be held to be perfoming it on behalf of the state, even if the official complies with the state's own laws. Peckham reached this curious result based on the Supremacy Clause, which makes the Constitution superior to all contrary laws. Violating the Supremacy Clause reduces a government official to the level of a private citizen, who can be sued. In arriving at this conclusion, Peckham managed to find that the official could be a state actor under the Fourteenth Amendment, which meant that his infringements on due process rights could be challenged, but a private individual under the Eleventh Amendment, which meant that he also could be sued.


  • John Marshall Harlan (Author)

Harlan had little patience for the majority's tortuous reasoning in finding that the official but not the state could be sued. He pointed out that the official was being sued for the sole reason that he represented the state, and that states function only through the actions of their officials, so this decision threatened to vitiate the Eleventh Amendment. Also, Harlan felt that state courts could hear actions based on constitutional claims.

Case Commentary

The Eleventh Amendment does not prohibit suits between states or suits by the United States against a state. More subtly, it allows individuals to sue local governments because they are viewed as more similar to corporations than state governments.

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