Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996)
The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution provides that the judicial power of the United States does not extend to any lawsuit filed against a state by a citizen of another state or a foreign country. In other words, the individual state has immunity from a lawsuit filed in federal court by a citizen of another state or a foreign country, and the state determines whether it can be sued in its own courts. This power of sovereign immunity is derivative of the dual sovereignty in the American federal system whereby parallel citizenship and constitutional systems exist concurrently.
The Commerce Clause of the Constitution, found at Article I, Section 8, has been used extensively by federal courts to justify federal legislative control over historically state issues. Prior to the decision in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court had determined that Congress could abrogate state immunity under the Eleventh Amendment if the Congress passed legislation using the Commerce Clause (see Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Company 1989).
In Seminole Tribe, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its prior position and declared invalid a portion of the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which provided that Indian tribes could sue individual states in federal court to enforce the act. The Court ruled based in part on the prior 1890 ruling in Hans v. Louisiana (1890) that the Congress could not unilaterally abrogate the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity. However, the Court did state that the Congress could use Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to abrogate immunity from federal court lawsuits provided it meets a validity test. And, as Tinsley Yarbrough (2000) recently noted, the Seminole decision made clear that congressional “abrogation of State sovereign immunity violated fundamental principles of federalism.”
The Court’s holding in this case has enduring significance for federalism. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority, “[E]ach 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 a suit without its consent.’ ”
This was a landmark decision as this was the first time in sixty years that the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed the Commerce Clause power of the Congress. And, as one commentator recently noted, the Seminole Tribe precedent combined with the other states’ rights rulings to establish Rehnquist’s legacy as one that would for some time be “reshaping the relationship between the federal government and the states by using two of the Constitution’s states’ rights provisions—the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments.”
Walter Berns, “The Meaning of the Tenth Amendment,” in A Nation of States, ed. Robert A. Goldwin (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963); Kenneth Jost, 1999–2000 Supreme Court Yearbook (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2001); Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Company, 491 U.S. 1 (1989); Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 116 S.Ct. 1114 (1996); and Tinsley E. Yarbrough, The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Michael W. Hail and J. Gregory Frye
Last Updated: 2006
SEE ALSO: Eleventh Amendment