Eleventh Amendment

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an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1795, that prohibited an individual from suing a state government in the federal courts.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is the Eleventh Amendment?

The Eleventh Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that gives the states immunity from being sued in a federal court.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

The Eleventh Amendment 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.”

For the most part, courts and legal scholars have agreed that the Eleventh Amendment gives the states some degree of immunity from federal lawsuits. However, they have constantly disagreed on how extensive this immunity is. Even the Supreme Court has overruled its own decisions on what exactly the Eleventh Amendment means.

Today, the Supreme Court’s opinion is that the Eleventh Amendment says states have complete immunity from being sued in federal court unless they consent to being sued, they are sued by the federal government, or Congress decides that their immunity should be rescinded for some reason.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled that an employee of a state government can be sued. This means that you can’t sue Ohio but you can sue the district attorney of Ohio, for example. The Supreme Court has also ruled the Eleventh Amendment doesn’t apply to subdivisions of a state. This means that you can sue a state’s counties, cities, or municipalities.

Why is Eleventh Amendment important?

Before the Eleventh Amendment was passed, supporters of the Constitution assured opponents that Article III of the Constitution would not be interpreted to mean that individuals could sue the states or that a state could be sued by a citizen of another state. At the time, Congress valued state sovereignty very highly and wanted to protect the states from being sued in federal courts.

However, in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Supreme Court allowed Alexander Chisholm, a citizen of South Carolina, to sue the state of Georgia. It also ruled in his favor and demanded the state of Georgia pay him for goods he supplied to them during the American Revolution.

When Chisholm v. Georgia was decided, several other, similar cases were pending. Congress was outraged by the Court’s decision in Chisholm v. Georgia and worked quickly to prevent the Supreme Court from hearing any other federal cases involving the states. Congress passed the Eleventh Amendment on March 4, 1794, and the states ratified it on February 7, 1795. With its ratification, the amendment stopped any pending federal lawsuits involving the states and took the ability to hear lawsuits involving the states away from the federal court system.

Did you know … ?

In a controversial 5-4 decision in Hans v. Louisiana (1890), the Supreme Court expanded the Eleventh Amendment by ruling that a state cannot be sued even by its own citizens. Hans v. Louisiana has never been overturned, which means this precedent still stands today.

What are real-life examples of Eleventh Amendment?

This photograph shows the New York State Capitol Building. According to the Eleventh Amendment, you can only sue someone who works inside this building and not the state government that uses it.

“New York State Capitol Building, west side.” Source: Wikipedia. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Many Americans are unfamiliar with what the Eleventh Amendment says, and because it is so dense, even law students are often confused by it.

What other words are related to Eleventh Amendment?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

According to the Eleventh Amendment, states cannot be sued in federal court.

How to use Eleventh Amendment in a sentence