The Fuller Court (1890). Seated, from left to right: Justices Joseph P. Bradley, Samuel F. Miller, Chief Justice Melville Fuller, and Justices Stephen J. Field and John Marshall Harlan. Standing, from left to right: Horace Gray, Lucius Q.C. Lamar, Samuel Blatchford, and David J. Brewer. (In back row, Justice Lamar should be first from the left, and Justice Gray should be second from the left.)
In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Supreme Court considered whether a South Carolina citizen to sue the state of Georgia. Four Justices held that the states were not sovereign and could be sued in federal court without their consent: Blair, Wilson, Cushing, and Chief Justice Jay. Justice Iredell, the lone dissenter, found that the states, as sovereigns, had not surrendered their immunity from being sued without their consent.
The Eleventh Amendment
The 11th Amendment modified Article III, Section 2
1. Could a citizen of one state sue another state? No. 2. Could a citizen sue his own state? No 3. Reverse the Chisholm majority on sovereign immunity? Yes.
Justice Bradley, writing for a unanimous Court, acknowledged that the text of the 11th Amendment does not prohibit a citizen from suing his own state. It only applies to suing “another state.” However, he said this reading would lead to an “anomalous result” where a state could be sued by its own citizens, but not foreign citizens.
Justice John Marshall Harlan concurred. He agreed that “a suit directly against a State by one of its own citizens is not one to which the judicial power of the United States extends, unless the State itself consents to be sued.”
Justice Harlan stated that Chisholm “was based upon a sound interpretation of the Constitution” prior to the ratification of the 11th Amendment.
After Reconstruction concluded, the state of Louisiana failed to pay interest on certain bonds. Hans, a citizen of Louisiana, sued Louisiana in federal court. He claimed that the state had violated the Contracts Clause. Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution provides that “No State shall . . . make any . . . Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” Hans argued that Louisiana’s violation of this Clause gave rise to federal question jurisdiction under Article III, Section 2. It provides, “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 . . . under their Authority.”
Federal courts have federal question jurisdiction when a plaintiff alleges that the government violated the Constitution, such as the Contracts Clause, or a federal statute or treaty. In such cases, the federal courts have the “judicial Power” to resolve the dispute. Article III, Section 2 also establishes diversity jurisdiction. Federal courts can hear a case “between Citizens of different States,” or a case brought by a state against a citizen of another state. The federal courts can exercise diversity jurisdiction regardless of the subject matter of the legal claims being made.