The Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – By Daniel W. Sheridan (Twitter: @DanielWSheridan)
On this day, February 7, 1795, the eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is ratified. This amendment is the result of a controversy that led to the first real Federal Court Case of lasting significance. Here’s the story.
Article Three, Section Two, of the U.S. Constitution, grants federal jurisdiction in cases where citizens in one state sue another state. Under this article, creditors brought many suits against states to force them to pay their debts. The most famous case was “Chisholm vs. Georgia.” Alexander Chisholm from South Carolina was the executor of the estate of a man who supplied goods to Georgia during the Revolutionary war. Georgia didn’t pay the bill, so Chisholm sued the state in 1792. The Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, argued for the plaintiff. But the defendant, Georgia, refused to answer the summons to trial, claiming that the court had no jurisdiction over a sovereign state in this matter.
The case went before the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Jay presided. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff 4-1, with only Justice Iredell dissenting. The court ruled that Article 3, Section 2, of the Constitution, annuls Georgia’s claim of sovereign immunity in this case and gives a citizen the right to sue a state other than the one in which he lives. The Federal Court compelled Georgia to respond to the suit.
This ruling involved far-reaching consequences. Other states, which had financial problems due to post-war inflation, were very nervous over this decision. Joseph Story describes the situation this way:
“…if a suit could be brought by any citizen of one state against another state, upon any contract or matter of property, the state would be constantly subject to judicial action, to enforce private rights against it (i.e.; the state) in its sovereign capacity.”
Most Congress members agreed that it wasn’t right that a citizen of another state could sue a state; it violated their state sovereignty ideas. So they created the eleventh amendment, which revises Article 3, Section 2, by further limiting judicial power with regards to the states. It reads:
“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.”
When the amendment became law, it was construed to include pending as well as future suits. As a result, all pending lawsuits were dismissed without any further adjudication. Many problems arise out of this amendment, but that’s a story for another time.
The Constitutional Amendment process is proof that America is an experiment. We learn and adapt through success and failure, wisdom and folly, and trial and error.
Was the Eleventh Amendment wise? Foolish? Just? Unjust?