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.
Though Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence can appear esoteric and abstruse and the decisions under it inconsistent, the Amendment remains a vital element of federal jurisdiction that
go[es] to the very heart of [the] federal system and affect[s] the allocation of power between the United States and the several states.1 The limit on state accountability in federal courts embodied through the Amendment might seem a discrete, straightforward adjustment of our federal structure precipitated by early case law, but discerning the implications of this embodiment continues to occasion heated dispute.
In accepting a suit against a state by a citizen of another state in 1793,2 the Supreme Court provoked such anger in Georgia and such anxiety in other states that, at the first meeting of Congress following the decision, the Eleventh Amendment was proposed by an overwhelming vote of both Houses and ratified with, what was for that day,
vehement speed.3 Chisholm had been brought under that part of the jurisdictional provision of Article III that authorized cognizance of
controversies . . . between a State and Citizens of another State. At the time of the ratification debates, opponents of the proposed Constitution had objected to the subjection of a state to suits in federal courts and had been met with conflicting responses – on the one hand, an admission that the accusation was true and that it was entirely proper so to provide, and, on the other hand, that the accusation was false and the clause applied only when a state was the party plaintiff.4 So matters stood when Congress, in enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, without recorded controversy gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction of suits between states and citizens of other states.5 Chisholm v. Georgia was brought under this jurisdictional provision to recover under a contract for supplies executed with the state during the Revolution. Four of the five Justices agreed that a state could be sued under this Article III jurisdictional provision and that under section 13 of the Act the Supreme Court properly had original jurisdiction.6
The Amendment proposed by Congress and ratified by the states was directed specifically toward overturning the result in Chisholm and preventing suits against states by citizens of other states or by citizens or subjects of foreign jurisdictions. It did not, as other possible versions of the Amendment would have done, altogether bar suits against states in the federal courts.7 That is, it barred suits against states based on the status of the party plaintiff and did not address the instance of suits based on the nature of the subject matter.8
The early decisions seemed to reflect this understanding of the Amendment, although the point was not necessary to the decisions and thus the language is dictum.9 In Cohens v. Virginia,10 Chief Justice Marshall ruled for the Court that the prosecution of a writ of error to review a judgment of a state court alleged to be in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States did not commence or prosecute a suit against the state but was simply a continuation of one commenced by the state, and thus could be brought under § 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.11 But, in the course of the opinion, the Chief Justice attributed adoption of the Eleventh Amendment not to objections to subjecting states to suits per se but to well-founded concerns about creditors being able to maintain suits in federal courts for payment,12 and stated his view that the Eleventh Amendment did not bar suits against the states under federal question jurisdiction13 and did not in any case reach suits against a state by its own citizens.14
In Osborn v. Bank of the United States,15 the Court, again through Chief Justice Marshall, held that the Bank of the United States16 could sue the Treasurer of Ohio, over Eleventh Amendment objections, because the plaintiff sought relief against a state officer rather than against the state itself. This ruling embodied two principles, one of which has survived and one of which the Marshall Court itself soon abandoned. The latter holding was that a suit is not one against a state unless the state is a named party of record.17 The former holding, the primary rationale through which the strictures of the Amendment are escaped, is that a state official possesses no official capacity when acting illegally and consequently can derive no protection from an unconstitutional statute of a state.18