440 U.S. 410 (1979), 77-1337, Nevada v. Hall

Docket Nº:No. 77-1337
Citation:440 U.S. 410, 99 S.Ct. 1182, 59 L.Ed.2d 416
Party Name:Nevada v. Hall
Case Date:March 05, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court

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440 U.S. 410 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 1182, 59 L.Ed.2d 416




No. 77-1337

United States Supreme Court

March 5, 1979

Argued November 7, 1978




Respondents, California residents, brought this suit in a California court for damages against petitioner State of Nevada and others for injuries respondents sustained when a Nevada-owned vehicle on official business collided on a California highway with a vehicle occupied by respondents. After the California Supreme Court, reversing the trial court, held Nevada amenable to suit in the California courts, Nevada, on the basis of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Federal Constitution, unsuccessfully invoked a Nevada statute limiting to $25,000 any tort award against the State pursuant to its statutory waiver of sovereign immunity. Following trial, damages were awarded respondents for $1,150,000, and the judgment in their favor was affirmed on appeal.

Held: A State is not constitutionally immune from suit in the courts of another State. Pp. 414-427.

(a) The doctrine that no sovereign may be sued in its own courts without its consent does not support a claim of immunity in another sovereign's courts. Pp. 414-418.

(b) The need for constitutional protection against one State's being sued in the courts of another State was not discussed by the Framers, and nothing in Art. III authorizing the judicial power of the United States or in the Eleventh Amendment limitation on that power provides any basis, explicit or implicit, for this Court to limit the judicial powers that California has exercised in this case. Pp. 418-421.

(c) The Full Faith and Credit Clause does not require a State to apply another State's law in violation of its own legitimate public policy. Pacific Ins. Co. v. Industrial Accident Comm'n, 306 U.S. 493. Here California, which has provided by statute for jurisdiction in its courts over residents and nonresidents alike to allow those negligently injured on its highways to secure full compensation for their injuries in California courts, is not required to surrender jurisdiction to Nevada or to limit respondents' recovery to the $25,000 Nevada statutory maximum. Pp. 421-424.

(d) The specific limitations that certain constitutional provisions such as Art. I, § 8, and Art. IV, § 2, place upon the sovereignty of the States do not imply that any one State's immunity from suit in the courts of

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another State is anything more than a matter of comity, and nothing in the Constitution authorizes or obligates this Court to frustrate California's policy of fully compensating those negligently injured on its highways. Pp. 424-427.

74 Cal.App.3d 280, 141 Cal.Rptr. 439, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 427. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 432.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this tort action arising out of an automobile collision in California, a California court has entered a judgment against the State of Nevada that Nevada's own courts could not have entered. We granted certiorari to decide whether federal law prohibits the California courts from entering such a judgment or, indeed, from asserting any jurisdiction over another sovereign State.

The respondents are California residents. They suffered severe injuries in an automobile [99 S.Ct. 1184] collision on a California highway on May 13, 1968. The driver of the other vehicle, an employee of the University of Nevada, was killed in the collision. It is conceded that he was driving a car owned by the State, that he was engaged in official business, and that the University is an instrumentality of the State itself.

Respondents filed this suit for damages in the Superior Court for the city of San Francisco, naming the administrator

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of the driver's estate, the University, and the State of Nevada as defendants. Process was served on the State and the University pursuant to the provisions of the California Vehicle Code authorizing service of process on nonresident motorists.1 The trial court granted a motion to quash service on the State, but its order was reversed on appeal. The California Supreme Court held, as a matter of California law, that the State of Nevada was amenable to suit in California courts, and remanded the case for trial. Hall v. University of Nevada, 8 Cal.3d 522, 503 P.2d 1363. We denied certiorari. 414 U.S. 820.

On remand, Nevada filed a pretrial motion to limit the amount of damages that might be recovered. A Nevada statute places a limit of $25,000 on any award in a tort action against the State pursuant to its statutory waiver of sovereign immunity.2 Nevada argued that the Full Faith and Credit

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Clause of the United States Constitution3 required the California courts to enforce that statute. Nevada's motion was denied, and the case went to trial.

The jury concluded that the Nevada driver was negligent and awarded damages of $1,150,000.4 The Superior Court entered judgment on the verdict and the [99 S.Ct. 1185] Court of Appeal affirmed. After the California Supreme Court denied review,

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the State of Nevada and its University successfully sought a writ of certiorari. 436 U.S. 925.

Despite its importance, the question whether a State may claim immunity from suit in the courts of another State has never been addressed by this Court. The question is not expressly answered by any provision of the Constitution; Nevada argues that it is implicitly answered by reference to the common understanding that no sovereign is amenable to suit without its consent -- an understanding prevalent when the Constitution was framed and repeatedly reflected in this Court's opinions. In order to determine whether that understanding is embodied in the Constitution, as Nevada claims,5 it is necessary to consider (1) the source and scope of the traditional doctrine of sovereign immunity; (2) the impact of the doctrine on the framing of the Constitution; (3) the Full Faith and Credit Clause; and (4) other aspects of the Constitution that qualify the sovereignty of the several States.


The doctrine of sovereign immunity is an amalgam of two quite different concepts, one applicable to suits in the sovereign's own courts and the other to suits in the courts of another sovereign.

The immunity of a truly independent sovereign from suit in its own courts has been enjoyed as a matter of absolute right for centuries. Only the sovereign's own consent could qualify the absolute character of that immunity.

The doctrine, as it developed at common law, had its origins in the feudal system. Describing those origins, Pollock and Maitland noted that no lord could be sued by a vassal in his

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own court, but each petty lord was subject to suit in the courts of a higher lord. Since the King was at the apex of the feudal pyramid, there was no higher court in which he could be sued.6 The King's immunity rested primarily on the structure of the feudal system, and secondarily on a fiction that the King could do no wrong.7

We must, of course, reject the fiction. It was rejected by the colonists when they declared their independence from the Crown,8 and the record in this case discloses an actual wrong committed by Nevada. But the notion that immunity from suit is an attribute of sovereignty is reflected in our cases.

Mr. Chief Justice Jay described sovereignty as the "right to govern";9 that kind of right would necessarily encompass the [99 S.Ct. 1186] right to determine what suits may be brought in the sovereign's own courts. Thus, Mr. Justice Holmes explained sovereign

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immunity as based "on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends."10

This explanation adequately supports the conclusion that no sovereign may be sued in its own courts without its consent, but it affords no support for a claim of immunity in another sovereign's courts. Such a claim necessarily implicates the power and authority of a second sovereign; its source must be found either in an agreement, express or implied, between the two sovereigns, or in the voluntary decision of the second to respect the dignity of the first as a matter of comity.

This point was plainly stated by Mr. Chief Justice Marshall in The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 7 Cranch 116, which held that an American court could not assert jurisdiction over a vessel in which Napoleon, the reigning Emperor of France, claimed a sovereign right. In that case, the Chief Justice observed:

The jurisdiction of courts is a branch of that which is possessed by the nation as an independent sovereign power.

The jurisdiction of the nation within its own territory is necessarily exclusive and absolute. It is susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself. Any restriction upon it, deriving validity from an external source, would imply a diminution of its sovereignty to the extent of the restriction, and an investment of that sovereignty to the same extent in that power which could impose such restriction.

All exceptions, therefore, to the full and complete power of a nation within its own territories must be traced up to the consent of the nation itself. They can flow from no other legitimate source.

Id. at 136.

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After noting that the source of any immunity for the French vessel must be found in American law, the Chief Justice interpreted that law as recognizing the common usage among nations in which every sovereign was understood to have waived its exclusive territorial jurisdiction over visiting...

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