Federal Civil Rights Legislation and State Sovereign Immunity

By Burke, Debra D.; Abel, Malcolm | Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Federal Civil Rights Legislation and State Sovereign Immunity


Burke, Debra D., Abel, Malcolm, Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues


ABSTRACT

State governments employ millions of people, and provide services to millions of Americans as well, some of which are of a governmental nature, but many of which are similar to those offered by the private sector. While the employment practices of most private employers are governed by a number of federal laws, state employers may not be required to conform to those regulations. Similarly, while the manner in which private employers provide services to the public are regulated by federal laws, state and local governmental service providers may be exempt from that regulatory scheme. Why? The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that, "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. "As a result, states may enjoy sovereign immunity, and may not be subject to the jurisdiction of federal courts in cases in which plaintiffs seek judicial relief under federal law. This paper will discuss the application of sovereign immunity with respect to federal civil rights legislation, and discuss the most recent case to present this issue, which was decided by the Supreme Court this term.

STATE SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY

In essence the Eleventh Amendment precludes federal courts from adjudicating disputes brought against state governmental entities "by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." Although the Eleventh Amendment does not expressly preclude citizens from bringing suits against the state in which they reside, the Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutional provision as precluding federal jurisdiction over suits against nonconsenting States, even by its own citizens. (College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd., 1 999). The amendment has been interpreted as prohibiting Congress from authorizing subject matter jurisdiction for suits against states in which the immunity has been neither waived nor effectively abrogated, although it can be argued that that the restriction was intended only to be for suits against states based upon diversity jurisdiction, not federal question jurisdiction. (Chemerinsky, 1997).

Further, the amendment specifically addresses Article III jurisdiction of federal courts, seemingly leaving open the question of whether or not state courts may entertain such federal law claims brought by citizens against states. However, in a case involving alleged violations of the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Court determined that no judicial forum is available for suits against states if Congress has not expressly and legitimately waived immunity. (Alden v. Maine, 1999). "We hold that the powers delegated to Congress under Article I . . .do not included the power to subject nonconsenting States to private suits for damages in state courts." (Alden v. Maine, 712, 1999). The Fair Labor Standards Act, however, was passed pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Clause, so the case did not address the legitimacy of suits filed in state court raising federal claims passed pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whether or not suits legitimately are permitted by citizens against states under federal law usually involves a two-step inquiry to determine 1) if Congress unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate that immunity, and 2) if it did, whether Congress acted pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority. (Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 2000). In Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida the Supreme Court held that Congress lacks power under Article I to abrogate the states' sovereign immunity. That case involved the Constitution's Indian Commerce Clause, which grants the federal government authority over Indian commerce. Specifically at issue in the case was the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed by Congress in an effort to provide a statutory basis for the operation and regulation of gaming by Indian tribes. …

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