Supreme Court Confirms State Sovereignty

By Felde, Jon | State Legislatures, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Confirms State Sovereignty


Felde, Jon, State Legislatures


Dealing a blow to congressional authority, the high court in March reaffirmed states' immunity from citizen suits under the 11th Amendment.

Some might call it March Madness. Legislators around the country know that the starting five for state sovereignty on the Supreme Court are positioning themselves to dominate. It's becoming a familiar line-up: Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy.

In two recent seasons on the Court, they have created consternation among traditional advocates of federal power by deciding close cases for the states. After chipping away at the Commerce Clause for the first time in 60 years in last season's battle over guns in schools, the Court convinced doubters this spring by asserting the smothering defense of the 11th Amendment. Ruling in a contest over the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), the Court blocked what many thought was a fair exercise of power by Congress.

The decision by the Supreme Court in Seminole Tribe of Florida vs. Florida handed down on March 27 held that Congress had acted beyond its constitutional authority when it allowed Indian tribes to sue states in federal court. As in United States vs. Lopez, the Court restricted congressional power under the Commerce Clause. According to the Seminole decision, Congress is not empowered under the Commerce Clause to strip states of the immunity extended to them under the 11th Amendment of the Constitution which protects states from being sued against their will.

"For the states, it's a very important case," declared Professor Vicki Jackson of Georgetown University Law Center. "But only time will tell how large its practical impact will be." Comparing its reasoning to Lopez, Jackson said that the Seminole case even more clearly reflects a change in direction for the Court.

State experiences under IGRA have been varied. The act requires states that allow gambling to negotiate with tribes to permit gaming on Indian lands. In some states, disputes ensued, not just between Indians and the state, but between governors and legislators. In other states, the act has been an opportunity to bridge cultures and to improve economic opportunities. In Florida, the Seminole tribe followed the procedure prescribed by IGRA and hauled the state into federal court. The tribe claimed that the state did not negotiate in good faith as required under the statute. Florida countered that the sovereign immunity protected by the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevented it from being subjected to the lawsuit.

In its decision, the Court accepted reasoning presented to it in an amicus brief filed by the State and Local Legal Center. The brief asked the Court to reject IGRA's premise that states could be compelled to defend suits brought by tribes to enforce the compact negotiation provision.

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