Amdt11. Exceptions to Eleventh Amendment Immunity: Abrogation

Eleventh 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.

The Constitution grants Congress power to regulate state action by legislation. At least in some instances when Congress does so, it may subject the states themselves to suit by individuals to implement the legislation. The clearest example arises from the Civil War Amendments, which directly restrict state powers and expressly authorize Congress to enforce these restrictions through appropriate legislation.1 Thus, the Eleventh Amendment and the principle of state sovereignty which it embodies . . . are necessarily limited, by the enforcement provisions of § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.2 The power to enforce the Civil War Amendments is substantive, however, not being limited to remedying judicially cognizable violations of the amendments, but extending as well to measures that in Congress’s judgment will promote compliance.3 The principal judicial brake on this power to abrogate state immunity in legislation enforcing the Civil War Amendments is the rule requiring that congressional intent to subject states to suit be clearly stated.4

In the 1989 case of Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co.,5 the Court—temporarily at least—ended years of uncertainty by holding expressly that Congress acting pursuant to its Article I powers (as opposed to its Fourteenth Amendment powers) may abrogate the Eleventh Amendment immunity of the states, so long as it does so with sufficient clarity. Twenty-five years earlier the Court had stated that same principle,6 but only as an alternative holding, and a later case had set forth a more restrictive rule.7 The premises of Union Gas were that by consenting to ratification of the Constitution, with its Commerce Clause and other clauses empowering Congress and limiting the states, the states had implicitly authorized Congress to divest them of immunity, that the Eleventh Amendment was a restraint upon the courts and not similarly upon Congress, and that the exercises of Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause and other clauses would be incomplete without the ability to authorize damage actions against the states to enforce congressional enactments. The dissenters disputed each of these strands of the argument, and, while recognizing the Fourteenth Amendment abrogation power, would have held that no such power existed under Article I.

Pennsylvania v. Union Gas lasted less than seven years before the Court overruled it in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida.8 Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for a 5-4 majority, concluded Union Gas had deviated from a line of cases, tracing back to Hans v. Louisiana,9 that viewed the Eleventh Amendment as implementing the fundamental principle of sovereign immunity [that] limits the grant of judicial authority in Article III.10 Because the Eleventh Amendment restricts the judicial power under Article III, . . . Article I cannot be used to circumvent the constitutional limitations placed upon federal jurisdiction.11 Subsequent cases have upheld this interpretation.12

Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, of course, is another matter. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer,13 which was based upon a rationale wholly inapplicable to the Interstate Commerce Clause, viz., that the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted well after the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment and the ratification of the Constitution, operated to alter the pre-existing balance between state and federal power achieved by Article III and the Eleventh Amendment, remains good law.14 This ruling has led to a significant number of cases that examined whether a statute that might be applied against non-state actors under an Article I power, could also, under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, be applied against the states.15

In another line of case, a different majority of the Court focused not so much on the authority Congress used to subject states to suit as on the language Congress used to overcome immunity. Henceforth, the Court held in a 1985 decision, and even with respect to statutes that were enacted prior to promulgation of this judicial rule of construction, Congress may abrogate the States’ constitutionally secured immunity from suit in federal court only by making its intention unmistakably clear in the language of the statute itself.16 This means that no legislative history will suffice at all.17

Indeed, at one time a plurality of the Court apparently believed that only if Congress refers specifically to state sovereign immunity and the Eleventh Amendment will its language be unmistakably clear.18 Thus, the Court held in Atascadero that general language subjecting to suit in federal court any recipient of Federal assistance under the Rehabilitation Act was deemed insufficient to satisfy this test, not because of any question about whether states are recipients within the meaning of the provision but because given their constitutional role, the states are not like any other class of recipients of federal aid.19 As a result of these rulings, Congress began to use the magic words the Court appeared to insist on.20 Later, however, the Court has accepted less precise language,21 and in at least one context, has eliminated the requirement of specific abrogation language altogether.22

Even before the decision in Alden v. Maine,23 when the Court believed that Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity did not apply to suits in state courts, the Court applied its rule of strict construction to require unmistakable clarity by Congress in order to subject states to suit.24 Although the Court was willing to recognize exceptions to the clear statement rule when the issue involved subjection of states to suit in state courts, the Court also suggested the need for symmetry so that states’ liability or immunity would be the same in both state and federal courts.25


  1.  Jump to essay-1Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976); Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980). More recent cases affirming Congress’s § 5 powers include Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99 (1984); Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 238 (1985); and Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223, 227 (1989).
  2.  Jump to essay-2Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456 (1976) (under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress may provide for private suits against States or state officials which are constitutionally impermissible in other contexts.).
  3.  Jump to essay-3In Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122 (1980), the Court found that Congress could validly authorize imposition of attorneys’ fees on the state following settlement of a suit based on both constitutional and statutory grounds, even though settlement had prevented determination that there had been a constitutional violation. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980), held that § 1983 suits could be premised on federal statutory as well as constitutional grounds. Other cases in which attorneys’ fees were awarded against states are Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978); and New York Gaslight Club v. Carey, 447 U.S. 54 (1980). See also Frew v. Hawkins, 540 U.S. 431 (2004) (upholding enforcement of consent decree).
  4.  Jump to essay-4Even prior to the tightening of the clear statement rule over the past several decades to require express legislative language (see note and accompanying text, infra), application of the rule curbed congressional enforcement. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 451–53 (1976); Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 693–98 (1978). Because of its rule of clear statement, the Court in Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332 (1979), held that in enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Congress had not intended to include states within the term person for the purpose of subjecting them to suit. The question arose after Monell v. New York City Dep’t of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), reinterpreted person to include municipal corporations. Cf. Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781 (1978). The Court has reserved the question whether the Fourteenth Amendment itself, without congressional action, modifies the Eleventh Amendment to permit suits against states, Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267, 290 n.23 (1977), but the result in Milliken, holding that the Governor could be enjoined to pay half the cost of providing compensatory education for certain schools, which would come from the state treasury, and in Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974), permitting imposition of damages upon the governor, which would come from the state treasury, is suggestive. But see Mauclet v. Nyquist, 406 F. Supp. 1233 (W.D.N.Y. 1976) (refusing money damages under the Fourteenth Amendment), appeal dismissed sub nom. Rabinovitch v. Nyquist, 433 U.S. 901 (1977). The Court declined in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 150 (1908), to view the Eleventh Amendment as modified by the Fourteenth.
  5.  Jump to essay-5491 U.S. 1 (1989). The plurality opinion of the Court was by Justice Brennan and was joined by the three other Justices who believed Hans was incorrectly decided. See id. at 23 (Justice Stevens concurring). The fifth vote was provided by Justice White, id. at 45, 55–56 (Justice White concurring), although he believed Hans was correctly decided and ought to be maintained and although he did not believe Congress had acted with sufficient clarity in the statutes before the Court to abrogate immunity. Justice Scalia thought the statutes were express enough but that Congress simply lacked the power. Id. at 29. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor and Kennedy joined relevant portions of both opinions finding lack of power and lack of clarity.
  6.  Jump to essay-6Parden v. Terminal Railway, 377 U.S. 184, 190–92 (1964). See also Employees of the Dep’t of Pub. Health and Welfare v. Department of Pub. Health and Welfare, 411 U.S. 279, 283, 284, 285–86 (1973).
  7.  Jump to essay-7Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 672 (1974).
  8.  Jump to essay-8517 U.S. 44 (1996) (invalidating a provision of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act authorizing an Indian tribe to sue a state in federal court to compel performance of a duty to negotiate in good faith toward the formation of a compact).
  9.  Jump to essay-9134 U.S. 1 (1890).
  10.  Jump to essay-10517 U.S. at 64 (quoting Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 97–98 (1984).
  11.  Jump to essay-11517 U.S. at 72–73. Justice Souter’s dissent undertook a lengthy refutation of the majority’s analysis, asserting that the Eleventh Amendment is best understood, in keeping with its express language, as barring only suits based on diversity of citizenship, and as having no application to federal question litigation. Moreover, Justice Souter contended, the state sovereign immunity that the Court mistakenly recognized in Hans v. Louisiana was a common law concept that had no constitutional status and was subject to congressional abrogation. 517 U.S. at 117. The Constitution made no provision for wholesale adoption of the common law, but, on the contrary, was premised on the view that common law rules would always be subject to legislative alteration. This imperative of legislative control grew directly out of the Framers’ revolutionary idea of popular sovereignty. Id. at 160.
  12.  Jump to essay-12College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666 (1999) (the Trademark Remedy Clarification Act, an amendment to the Lanham Act, did not validly abrogate state immunity); Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd. v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999) (amendment to patent laws abrogating state immunity from infringement suits is invalid); Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000) (abrogation of state immunity in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is invalid); Allen v. Cooper, 140 S. Ct. 994 (2020) (the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 did not validly abrogate state sovereign immunity).
  13.  Jump to essay-13427 U.S. 445 (1976).
  14.  Jump to essay-14Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 65–66.
  15.  Jump to essay-15See Fourteenth Amendment, Congressional Definition of Fourteenth Amendment Rights, infra.
  16.  Jump to essay-16Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 242 (1985) (emphasis added).
  17.  Jump to essay-17See, particularly, Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223, 230 (1989) (legislative history generally will be irrelevant), and Hoffman v. Connecticut Dep’t of Income Maintenance, 492 U.S. 96, 103–04 (1989).
  18.  Jump to essay-18Justice Kennedy for the Court in Dellmuth, 491 U.S. at 231, expressly noted that the statute before the Court did not demonstrate abrogation with unmistakably clarity because, inter alia, it makes no reference whatsoever to either the Eleventh Amendment or the States’ sovereign immunity. Justice Scalia, one of four concurring Justices, expressed an understanding that the Court’s reasoning would allow for clearly expressed abrogation of immunity without explicit reference to state sovereign immunity or the Eleventh Amendment. Id. at 233.
  19.  Jump to essay-19Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 246 (1985). See also Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223 (1989).
  20.  Jump to essay-20In 1986, following Atascadero, Congress provided that states were not to be immune under the Eleventh Amendment from suits under several laws barring discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance. Pub. L. No. 99-506, § 1003, 100 Stat. 1845 (1986), 42 U.S.C. § 2000d–7. Following Dellmuth, Congress amended the statute to insert the explicit language. Pub. L. No. 101-476, § 103, 104 Stat. 1106 (1990), 20 U.S.C. § 1403. See also the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, Pub. L. 101-553, § 2, 104 Stat. 2749 (1990), 17 U.S.C. § 511 (making states and state officials liable in damages for copyright violations).
  21.  Jump to essay-21Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 74–78 (2000). In Kimel, statutory language authorized age discrimination suits against any employer (including a public agency), and a public agency was defined to include the government of a State or political subdivision thereof. The Court found this language to be sufficiently clear evidence of intent to abrogate state sovereign immunity. The relevant portion of the opinion was written by Justice O’Connor, and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens. But see Raygor v. Regents of the University of Minnesota, 534 U.S. 533 (2002) (federal supplemental jurisdiction statute which tolls limitations period for state claims during pendency of federal case not applicable to claim dismissed on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity).
  22.  Jump to essay-22Central Virginia Community College v. Katz, 546 U.S. 356, 363 (2006) (abrogation of state sovereign immunity under the Bankruptcy Clause was effectuated by the Constitution, so it need not additionally be done by statute); id. at 383 (Justice Thomas dissenting).
  23.  Jump to essay-23527 U.S. 706 (1999).
  24.  Jump to essay-24Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989) (holding that states and state officials sued in their official capacity could not be made defendants in § 1983 actions in state courts).
  25.  Jump to essay-25Hilton v. South Carolina Pub. Rys. Comm’n, 502 U.S. 197, 206 (1991) (interest in symmetry is outweighed by stare decisis, the FELA action being controlled by Parden v. Terminal Ry.).