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

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

After 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.


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


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

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Congress cannot use its Article I powers to force states to surrender sovereign immunity for federal claims in their courts.


Arguing that the state of Maine had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, probation officers in its employment brought a claim against the state for compensation and damages. Since the state had not consented to being sued in this situation, the case was dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity.



  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas

The states historically had possessed immunity from suit as a fundamental element of their sovereignty, which survived the ratification of the Constitution. The Tenth and Eleventh Amendments, as well as the context surrounding them, illustrate the significance of this right. Although the plain meaning of the Eleventh Amendment is not precise, the history and structure of the Constitution lead to the conclusion that states retain sovereign immunity unless they expressly relinquish it in a certain situation. Earlier decisions of the Supreme Court also suggest that sovereign immunity should be interpreted broadly, and the Supremacy Clause should not remove this right unless doing so conforms with the constitutional design.

Federalism principles also rely on preserving state sovereign immunity, since they would be undermined if the federal government could make the states turn against themselves and thus control their processes. Exposing states to a wide range of lawsuits also could undermine their finances if judgments frequently were levied against them. However, the states still may be sued under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and must comply with federal laws that are based on the constitutional design. Sovereign immunity applies only to states rather than local governments and state officers.


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

The consensus supporting sovereign immunity was far less widespread than the majority implies. It was not an inalienable right, and many of the Framers did not feel that it was appropriate in a republic. Before the American Revolution, the colonies did not have sovereign immunity, and the Constitution made no reference to it. Federalism is also an inadequate basis to reach the majority's conclusion, since state sovereignty must be trumped by federal objectives. Federal claims against states should be heard in state courts with general jurisdiction under the Supremacy Clause.

In theory, the federal government could sue a state to enforce the rights of state employees, since sovereign immunity does not protect states from suit by the federal government. However, it is unlikely that the federal government would actually bring these actions to enforce private rights. If tort victims are allowed to bring personal injury claims against the state, employees of the state should be allowed to bring actions as well.

Case Commentary

This ruling on sovereign immunity offers a broad vision of its scope, finding that Article I does not contain a basis for abrogating it at the state or federal level. While it can be abrogated under the Fourteenth Amendment, the means by which it is abrogated must be congruent and proportional to the ends, and it cannot be abrogated under any circumstances when a substantive right has been created.

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