Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706; 119 S. Ct. 2240; 144 L. Ed. 2d 636 (1999)

Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706; 119 S. Ct. 2240; 144 L. Ed. 2d 636 (1999)

Facts—Congress provided under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for individuals to sue states in their own courts. State employees sued Maine. As the suit was pending, the Supreme Court ruled in Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), that Congress could not authorize Indian tribes to sue unconsenting states in federal courts. The U.S. District Court and the U.S. First Circuit accordingly dismissed the employees’ suit as did the Superior Court and the Supreme Judicial Courts of Maine.

Question—Can Congress subject unconsenting states to private suits for damages in their own courts without their consent?

Decision—Not in the present case.

ReasonsJ. Kennedy (5–4). Although the Eleventh Amendment Immunity specifically refers to suits commenced by a state or by citizens of other states or nations, state sovereign immunity “neither derives from nor is limited by the terms of the Eleventh Amendment.” Rather, such immunity is “a funda- mental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratifica- tion of the Constitution, and which they retain today . . . except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional amendments.”

The Tenth Amendment reinforced the role of the states in the original Constitution. That Constitution recognized state sovereignty as did such Framers as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Marshall when they argued on its behalf. Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) called this sovereignty into question, but it was quickly overturned. In so doing “Congress acted not to change but to restore the original constitutional design.” Kennedy observed that subsequent holdings “reflect a settled doctrinal understanding . . . that sovereign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the structure of the original Constitution itself.” Overreliance on the precise words of the Eleventh Amendment would be “to engage in the type of ahistorical literalism we have rejected in interpreting the scope of the States’ sovereign immunity since the discredited decision in Chisholm.” The supremacy clause applies only when Congress is acting within the constitutional design, which was written to protect state sovereignty. Decisions shielding states from suits in federal courts apply with even greater force when they apply to cases brought within states’ own courts: “a congressional power to authorize private suits against nonconsenting States in their own courts would be even more offensive to state sovereignty than a power to authorize the suits in a federal forum.” Such suits could threaten the fiscal integrity of states and would make the national government more powerful in state courts than in its own. Immunity does not apply in cases where states give their consent to be sued, in instances where states have specifically limited their sovereignty, or in cases where individuals sue municipalities or, in some cases, state officials. This case does not fit within any of these exceptions. “Congress has vast power but not all power. When Congress legislates in matters affecting the States, it may not treat these sovereign entities as mere prefectures or corporations.”

J. Souter, dissenting, argued that the majority view was based on a “natural law” conception rather than on the Constitution itself. Souter did not think that the Framers thought that state sovereign immunity was unalterable. He further argued that both the ideas of sovereignty and sovereign immunity were in flux at the time of the American Founding. No states at that time declared sovereign immunity to be among their rights, and there was not unanimity among those who thought states would be sovereign. Souter disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of Chisholm v. Georgia. He further declared that “The State of Maine is not sovereign with respect to the national objective of the FLSA.” Souter likened this decision to National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976), which has since been discredited and overturned. As the Court indicated in Garcia v. SAMTA, 469 U.S. 528 (1985), states should rely for protection on the structure of the federal system rather than on the courts. The decision in this case contradicts the venerable constitutional rule that “where there is a right, there must be a remedy.” Souter further likened this case to the Court’s use of substantive due process in the discredited case of Lochner v. New York (1905).

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