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Eleventh Amendment Timeline

1821Federal Courts Have Jurisdiction Where State And Federal Laws Conflict

Two brothers from Norfolk, Virginia, sell tickets in their hometown for a lottery in Washington, D.C. Congress had set up the lottery only for people in Washington, and Virginia had a law banning some gaming. The Virginia Supreme Court rules that the Cohen brothers violated Virginia law by selling the tickets. When the brothers appeal and the case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia argues that the federal courts have no power to review the conviction. The high court disagrees on the grounds that state laws or actions can violate federal laws or U.S. constitutional provisions and therefore can be reviewed in federal courts, but rules that the Virginia court decision was correct.

1824Eleventh Amendment Does Not Protect State Officials

The state of Ohio passes a law that taxes the Bank of the United States when it does business within the state, but the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the tax is unconstitutional and orders that it cannot be enforced. A persistent state auditor, Ralph Osborn, goes ahead and collects the tax by seizing $100,000 from the federal bank. In Osborn v. Bank of the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that Osborn can be ordered to return the money to the federal bank and that public officials acting on behalf of the state who knowingly committing an illegal act do not have the same constitutional protection enjoyed by states under the Eleventh Amendment.

1828Federal Court Cannot Decide Ownership Of Seized Slaves

A Spanish slave vessel, the Isabelita, owned by Juan Madrazo, is captured by a pirate ship and carried to Amelia Island off the Georgia coast. William Bowen buys the slaves and intends to take them to East Florida, then a province of Spain. But Georgia officials seize the slaves on the grounds that the law prohibits the importation of slaves. The governor of Georgia asks the federal district court for permission to sell the slaves, but the court of appeals rules against Georgia. Before the Supreme Court, Georgia argues that the federal court cannot award the money and slaves to Madrazo because the Eleventh Amendment bars the federal court from deciding a case in which a state is a party. The Supreme Court agrees and Georgia keeps the money and slaves and Madrazo keeps his ship.

1890Citizens Cannot Take Cases Against Their Own States To Federal Court

A Louisiana man buys bonds issued by the State of Louisiana in 1874. Six years later, when he goes to collect payments that are owed to him, the state refuses to pay. Louisiana officials argue that a state law passed in the interim has nullified the state’s obligation to pay the debt. In Hans v. Louisiana, the bondholder takes the case to federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that a lawsuit against a state by one of its own citizens cannot be heard in federal court.

1892Supreme Court Can Resolve Cases Involving The Federal Government

A 1821 treaty between the United States and Spain sets the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish territories. In 1845, Congress accepts Texas as a state if it meets certain conditions, including the designation of specific boundary lines. The Texas legislature and a federal land commission disagree over approximately 1.5 million acres on the southern border. The U.S. government brings suit against Texas in federal court. Texas argues that the Eleventh Amendment bars the U.S. courts from resolving the dispute. In United States v. Texas, the Supreme Court holds that the deferral courts have jurisdiction in cases in which the U.S. government is a party.

1908States Can Be Sued In Federal Courts Over Constitutional Principles

The Minnesota legislature passes laws that reduce the rates that railroad companies can charge to carry passengers and cargo. Stockholders of the railroads file nine lawsuits in federal court against Minnesota officials, challenging the new rate schedules. In one of these cases, Ex Parte Young, the Supreme Court holds that it is proper to hear the case in federal court because it involves a federal question: whether the high fines deny the railroad stockholders due process of law (for taking property without a fair procedure in place). In such circumstances, the state is not immune from suit.

1934A Foreign Country Cannot Sue A State In Federal Courts

In the early 1830s, a number of Mississippi citizens purchase bonds from their home state. The heirs of the original bondholders, who are unable to collect on the bonds, give them, as a gift, to the Principality of Monaco. Although worthless to the Mississippi residents, they think that Monaco, as a foreign country, might be able to go to federal court to collect on the long overdue debt. Mississippi refuses to pay and argues that under the Eleventh Amendment the federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear the case. In Principality of Monaco v. Mississippi, the Court finds that the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects Mississippi from suits by foreign countries unless the state specifically consents to such a suit. No such consent is given.

1974States Retain Sovereign Immunity When Participating In Welfare Programs

A group of people eligible for a welfare program administered by both the federal and state governments ask a federal court to order Illinois to comply with federal time limits in handing out grants. The lower courts ordered Illinois to comply with the federal time limits and to pay out grants that have been wrongfully withheld from recipients. Illinois appeals, claiming that its sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment means that the federal courts cannot order it to pay the grants. In Edelman v. Jordan, the Supreme Court agrees that the state has not waived its immunity by participating in the joint federal-state welfare program.

1982State Officials Are Ordered To Turn Over Sunken Treasure

In 1622 the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank forty nautical miles west of Key West, Florida. When a salvage company locates the wreck in the spring of 1971, Florida claims that the ship belongs to the state under Florida law. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the boundary of Florida does not extend as far as the state asserts, and the federal government claims ownership of the salvaged property. The state argues that it cannot be sued for it due to the Eleventh Amendment. In Florida Department of State v. Treasure Salvors, the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees that the Eleventh Amendment prevents a direct action against the state, because the suit is directed only at state officials, who have no rightful ownership of the salvaged property.

1987Residents May Not Sue Their Own State Unless State Agrees To Be Sued

Texas highway worker Jean Welch is injured while working on a ferry dock. She sues her employer, the state of Texas, in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court rules, in Welch v. Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation, that citizens cannot sue their own states in federal courts unless the state has passed a law allowing for citizens to sue. As no specific state law grants consent to sue, the worker’s case is dismissed.

2002States Immune From Charges Filed With Federal Administrative Agencies

A gambling cruise asks South Carolina authorities for permission to dock in the state. South Carolina denies the request and the ship’s owners file a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission, which finds that states have immunity from prosecution in federal courts, but not executive branch agencies. Upon appeal, in Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the commission’s ruling. The Court holds that federal administrative agencies face the same restraints as the federal courts under the Eleventh Amendment.