This One Goes to Eleven

Have you ever wanted to sue a state? Well, the 11th Amendment makes that a bit more difficult than it once was back in the early 1790’s. This was the first Amendment to be passed after the Bill of Rights. It is staggering to compare its conciseness with that of the 12th Amendment:

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.

The original Constitution, Article III more specifically, allowed federal courts to hear cases where citizens of another state or even a foreign state brought suits against a state. This led to the case of Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793, where a citizen of South Carolina sued Georgia for unpaid war debts. Around the same time, several other suits were in work, including one by a British subject. This prompted Senator Caleb Strong to propose what ultimately became the 11th Amendment. For more discussion on this, as with all the Amendments I’ve talked about here, you should definitely check out the National Constitution Center (, among other resources of course.

The 11th Amendment was passed by Congress in January of 1794, and over the next year, twelve states ratified it, which was sufficient at the time to reach the 3/4 threshold in 1795. The last state to ratify was New Jersey, in 2018. I suppose better late than never, but, like, wow.

Since its adoption, the 11th Amendment has generally been interpreted more broadly than its text immediately suggests. Courts have systematically applied it even when a citizen of a state sues his or her own state. Some exceptions apply: federal courts can essentially bar state officials from violating federal law, and the all-powerful 14th Amendment has been interpreted to allow Congress to abrogate state immunity from lawsuits as well.

There isn’t a whole lot more to say about this one. Court is adjourned.


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