ALDEN et al. v. MAINE, 062399 USSC98436

Party Name:ALDEN et al. v. MAINE
Case Date:March 31, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court

United States Supreme Court

119 S.Ct. 2240 715 A. 2d 172, affirmed.


No. 98-436.

Argued March 31, 1999

Decided June 23, 1999

On writ of certiorari to the supreme judicial court of Maine

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1992, petitioners, a group of probation officers, filed suit against their employer, the State of Maine, in the United States District Court for the District of Maine. The officers alleged the State had violated the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 52 Stat. 1060, as amended, 29 U. S. C. § 201 et seq., and sought compensation and liquidated damages. While the suit was pending, this Court decided Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), which made it clear that Congress lacks power under Article I to abrogate the States' sovereign immunity from suits commenced or prosecuted in the federal courts. Upon consideration of Seminole Tribe, the District Court dismissed petitioners' action, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Mills v. Maine, 118 F. 3d 37 (CA1 1997). Petitioners then filed the same action in state court. The state trial court dismissed the suit on the basis of sovereign immunity, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. 715 A. 2d 172 (1998).

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court's decision conflicts with the decision of the Supreme Court of Arkansas, Jacoby v. Arkansas Dept. of Ed., 331 Ark. 508, 962 S.W. 2d 773 (1998), and calls into question the constitutionality of the provisions of the FLSA purporting to authorize private actions against States in their own courts without regard for consent, see 29 U. S. C. §§ 216(b), 203(x). In light of the importance of the question presented and the conflict between the courts, we granted certiorari. 525 U. S. ___ (1998). The United States intervened as a petitioner to defend the statute.

We hold that the powers delegated to Congress under Article I of the United States Constitution do not include the power to subject nonconsenting States to private suits for damages in state courts. We decide as well that the State of Maine has not consented to suits for overtime pay and liquidated damages under the FLSA. On these premises we affirm the judgment sustaining dismissal of the suit.


The Eleventh Amendment makes explicit reference to the States' immunity from suits "commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." U.S. Const., Amdt. 11. We have, as a result, sometimes referred to the States' immunity from suit as "Eleventh Amendment immunity." The phrase is convenient shorthand but something of a misnomer, for the sovereign immunity of the States neither derives from nor is limited by the terms of the Eleventh Amendment. Rather, as the Constitution's structure, and its history, and the authoritative interpretations by this Court make clear, the States' immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today (either literally or by virtue of their admission into the Union upon an equal footing with the other States) except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments.


Although the Constitution establishes a National Government with broad, often plenary authority over matters within its recognized competence, the founding document "specifically recognizes the States as sovereign entities." Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, supra, at 71, n. 15; accord, Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, 501 U.S. 775, 779 (1991) ("[T]he States entered the federal system with their sovereignty intact"). Various textual provisions of the Constitution assume the States' continued existence and active participation in the fundamental processes of governance. See Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 919 (1997) (citing Art. III, § 2; Art. IV, §§ 2-4; Art. V). The limited and enumerated powers granted to the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches of the National Government, moreover, underscore the vital role reserved to the States by the constitutional design, see, e.g., Art. I, § 8; Art. II, §§ 2-3; Art. III, § 2. Any doubt regarding the constitutional role of the States assovereign entities is removed by the Tenth Amendment, which, like the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, was enacted to allay lingering concerns about the extent of the national power. The Amendment confirms the promise implicit in the original document: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." U.S. Const., Amdt. 10; see also Printz, supra, at 919; New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144, 156-159, 177 (1992).

The federal system established by our Constitution preserves the sovereign status of the States in two ways. First, it reserves to them a substantial portion of the Nation's primary sovereignty, together with the dignity and essential attributes inhering in that status. The States "form distinct and independent portions of the supremacy, no more subject, within their respective spheres, to the general authority than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere." The Federalist No. 39, p. 245 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (J. Madison).

Second, even as to matters within the competence of the National Government, the constitutional design secures the founding generation's rejection of "the concept of a central government that would act upon and through the States" in favor of "a system in which the State and Federal Governments would exercise concurrent authority over the people--who were, in Hamilton's words, `the only proper objects of government.' " Printz, supra, at 919-920 (quoting The Federalist No. 15, at 109); accord, New York, supra, at 166 ("The Framers explicitly chose a Constitution that confers upon Congress the power to regulate individuals, not States"). In this the founders achieved a deliberate departure from the Articles of Confederation: Experience under the Articles had "exploded on all hands" the "practicality of making laws, with coercive sanctions, for the States as political bodies." 2 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, p. 9 (M. Farrand ed. 1911) (J. Madison); accord, The Federalist No. 20, at 138 (J. Madison & A. Hamilton); 3 Annals of America 249 (1976) (J. Iredell).

The States thus retain "a residuary and inviolable sovereignty." The Federalist No. 39, at 245. They are not relegated to the role of mere provinces or political corporations, but retain the dignity, though not the full authority, of sovereignty.


The generation that designed and adopted our federal system considered immunity from private suits central to sovereign dignity. When the Constitution was ratified, it was well established in English law that the Crown could not be sued without consent in its own courts. See Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, 437-446 (1793) (Iredell, J., dissenting) (surveying English practice); cf. Nevada v. Hall, 440 U.S. 410, 414 (1979) ("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"). In reciting the prerogatives of the Crown, Blackstone--whose works constituted the preeminent authority on English law for the founding generation--underscored the close and necessary relationship understood to exist between sovereignty and immunity from suit:

"And, first, the law ascribes to the king the attribute of sovereignty, or pre-eminence... . Hence it is, that no suit or action can be brought against the king, even in civil matters, because no court can have jurisdiction over him. For all jurisdiction implies superiority of power... ." 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 234-235 (1765).

Although the American people had rejected other aspects of English political theory, the doctrine that a sovereign could not be sued without its consent was universal in the States when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. See Chisholm, supra, at 434-435 (Iredell, J., dissenting) ("I believe there is no doubt that neither in the State now in question, nor in any other in the Union, any particular Legislative mode, authorizing a compulsory suit for the recovery of money against a State, was in being either when the Constitution was adopted, or at the time the judicial act was passed"); Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 16 (1890) ("The suability of a State, without its consent, was a thing unknown to the law. This has been so often laid down and acknowledged by courts and jurists that it is hardly necessary to be formally asserted").

The ratification debates, furthermore, underscored the importance of the States' sovereign immunity to the American people. Grave concerns were raised by the provisions of Article III which extended the federal judicial power to controversies between States and citizens of other States or foreign nations. As we have explained:

"Unquestionably the doctrine of sovereign immunity was a matter of importance in the early days of independence. Many of the States were heavily indebted as a result of the Revolutionary War. They were vitally interested in the question whether the creation of a new federal sovereign, with courts of its own, would automatically subject them, like lower English lords, to suits in the courts of the `higher' sovereign." Hall, supra, at 418 (footnote omitted).

The leading advocates of the Constitution assured the people in no uncertain terms that...

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