ArtIII.S2.C1.4.4.2 Suits Against States

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

Controversies to which the United States is a party include suits brought against states as party defendants. The first such suit occurred in United States v. North Carolina, 1 which was an action by the United States to recover upon bonds issued by North Carolina. Although no question of jurisdiction was raised, in deciding the case on its merits in favor of the state, the Court tacitly assumed that it had jurisdiction of such cases. The issue of jurisdiction was directly raised by Texas a few years later in a bill in equity brought by the United States to determine the boundary between Texas and the Territory of Oklahoma, and the Court sustained its jurisdiction over strong arguments by Texas to the effect that it could not be sued by the United States without its consent and that the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction did not extend to cases to which the United States is a party. 2 Stressing the inclusion within the judicial power of cases to which the United States and a state are parties, the elder Justice Harlan pointed out that the Constitution made no exception of suits brought by the United States. In effect, therefore, consent to be sued by the United States was given by Texas when admitted to the Union upon an equal footing in all respects with the other States.3

Suits brought by the United States have, however, been infrequent. All of them have arisen since 1889, and they have become somewhat more common since 1926. That year the Supreme Court decided a dispute between the United States and Minnesota over land patents issued to the state by the United States in breach of its trust obligations to the Chippewa tribe. 4 In United States v. West Virginia, 5 the Court refused to take jurisdiction of a suit in equity brought by the United States to determine the navigability of the New and Kanawha Rivers on the ground that the jurisdiction in such suits is limited to cases and controversies and does not extend to the adjudication of mere differences of opinion between the officials of the two governments. A few years earlier, however, it had taken jurisdiction of a suit by the United States against Utah to quiet title to land forming the beds of certain sections of the Colorado River and its tributaries with the states. 6 Similarly, it took jurisdiction of a suit brought by the United States against California to determine the ownership of and paramount rights over the submerged land and the oil and gas thereunder off the coast of California between the low-water mark and the three-mile limit. 7 Like suits were decided against Louisiana and Texas in 1950. 8

Footnotes

  1.  136 U.S. 211 (1890).
  2.  United States v. Texas, 143 U.S. 621 (1892).
  3.  143 U.S. at 642-46. This suit, it may be noted, was specifically authorized by the Act of Congress of May 2, 1890, providing for a temporary government for the Oklahoma territory to determine the ownership of Greer County. 26 Stat. 81, 92, § 25. See also United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699, 701-02 (1950).
  4.  United States v. Minnesota, 270 U.S. 181 (1926). For an earlier suit against a state by the United States, see United States v. Michigan, 190 U.S. 379 (1903).
  5.  295 U.S. 463 (1935).
  6.  United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64 (1931).
  7.  United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
  8.  United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699 (1950); United States v. Texas, 339 U.S. 707 (1950). See also United States v. Maine, 420 U.S. 515 (1975).