Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Eleventh (11th) Amendment Definition:

A 1795 amendment to the constitution of the USA purporting to insulate states from judgments or legal actions brought by citizens of other states.

Related Terms: Thirteenth (13th) Amendment

The actual text of the Amendment:

"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."

To which must be added the important distinction as described by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Orth:

"American plaintiffs are pointedly described as citizens, while foreign plaintiffs may be either "citizens or subjects," a recognition of the distinction-much insisted upon in the late eighteenth century-between citizens of the new republics like France and subjects of the old monarchies like Britain."

The 11th Amendment was passed as a reaction to a 1793 Supreme Court of the United States decision, Chisholm v. Georgia in which the Court assumed jurisdiction over a case in which the executor of an estate in South Carolina sought to recover the debt the State of Georgia allegedly owed the estate.

Most legal experts, while acknowledging a long and tortuous evolution of the actual meaning of the Eleventh Amendment as it has been re-worked almost countless times by all levels of Courts of the United States since ratification in 1795, to stand for the general proposition that American individual states have limited sovereign immunity and are not subject to, in all instances, the whim of the federal government.

In Seminole Tribe v. Florida, Chief Justice William Renquist tried his hand at summarizing the import of the controversial and much-interpreted 11th Amendment (relying on the 1890 case of his court,  Hans v. Louisiana):

"... we have understood the Eleventh Amendment to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition... which it confirms. That presupposition ... has two parts: first, that each State is a sovereign entity in our federal system; and second, that it is inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable to the suit of an individual without its consent."

But that was in 1996. In 1883, the then-Chief Justice of the same Court, Justice Waite wrote of the 11th Amendment (in New Hampshire v. Louisiana):

"Under the Constitution, as it was originally construed, a citizen of one State could sue another State in the courts of the United States for himself, and obtain the same relief his State could get for him if it should sue. Certainly, when he can sue for himself, there is no necessity for power in his State to sue in his behalf, and we cannot believe it was the intention of the framers of the Constitution to allow both remedies in such a case. Therefore, the special remedy, granted to the citizen himself, must be deemed to have been the only remedy the citizen of one State could have under the Constitution against another State for the redress of his grievances, except such as the delinquent State saw fit itself to grant. In other words, the giving of the direct remedy to the citizen himself was equivalent to taking away any indirect remedy he might otherwise have claimed, through the intervention of his State, upon any principle of the law of nations. It follows that when the amendment took away the special remedy there was no other left. Nothing was added to the Constitution by what was thus done. No power taken away by the grant of the special remedy was restored by the amendment. The effect of the amendment was simply to revoke the new right that had been given, and leave the limitations to stand as they were. In the argument of the opinions filed by the several justices in the Chisholm case, there is not even an intimation that if the citizen could not sue, his State could sue for him."

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