The conservative wing of the US Supreme Court has taken another
major step in reordering the power balance between the states and
And it has demonstrated its resolve to pursue an aggressive
federalist agenda that seeks to rein in the power of the national
government when, in the majority's view, it impermissibly treads on
The action came in decisions rendered in three cases on Wednesday
- two involving a lawsuit by a New Jersey company against a Florida
tuition savings program, and one involving a federal labor law
dispute between probation officers and the state of Maine.
In all three, the essential issue was whether state sovereignty
trumps federal power when individuals seek to hold states
under federal laws. In all three, the same five-justice majority
sided with the states. "It certainly seems to be continuing the
trend in favor of states' rights," says Richard Seamon, law
at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
In the Florida cases, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the 11th
Amendment to the US Constitution bars an individual from suing a
state for infringement of federal patent laws. The court also ruled
5 to 4 that states are immune from federal jurisdiction outlawing
false advertising and that states do not automatically waive that
immunity when they engage in national, competitive market-oriented
In the Maine case, the court ruled 5 to 4 that Congress doesn't
have the power to force state compliance with the federal Fair Labor
Standards Act. It said such action would violate the principles of
state sovereignty. The immunity applies even against federal suits
filed in state court.
In announcing the majority's decision in the Maine case, Justice
Anthony Kennedy said the opinion rested on "a settled doctrinal
understanding ... that sovereign immunity derives not from the 11th
Amendment but from the structure of the Constitution itself."
"We seek to discover ... only what the Framers and those who
ratified the Constitution sought to accomplish...," the decision
says. "Theirs was the unique insight that freedom is enhanced by the
creation of two governments, not one."
The decision marks an important extension of the court's 1996
landmark ruling in a case involving the Florida Seminole Indian
tribe. In that case, the court ruled that Congress could not
authorize individuals to sue states in federal court for violations
of federal law. Wednesday's decision spreads the immunity to state
courts as well.
"The court could not be more fundamentally mistaken about the
nature of the federal relationship," said Justice David Souter,
speaking in dissent shortly after the Maine decision was announced.
He said there is no historical evidence that the legal concepts
supporting the majority's view in the Maine case were held by the
Throughout the 1990s, the same five-justice majority led by Chief
Justice William Rehnquist has championed the cause of state
sovereignty in the face of an ever expanding tangle of federal
regulations and laws. "The court ... has really struck a serious
blow to property interests," says David Todd, a lawyer who argued
of the Florida cases. …