Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak and Circle Village

Decision Date24 June 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-1782,89-1782
Citation111 S.Ct. 2578,115 L.Ed.2d 686,501 U.S. 775
PartiesEdgar BLATCHFORD, Commissioner, Department of Community and Regional Affairs of Alaska, Petitioner, v. NATIVE VILLAGE OF NOATAK AND CIRCLE VILLAGE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents, Alaska Native villages, brought suit against petitioner, a state official, seeking an order requiring payment to them of money allegedly owed under a state revenue-sharing statute. The District Court dismissed the suit as violating the Eleventh Amendment. The Court of Appeals reversed, first on the ground that 28 U.S.C. § 1362 constituted a congressional abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity, and then, upon reconsideration, on the ground that Alaska had no immunity against suits by Indian tribes.

Held:

1. The Eleventh Amendment bars suits by Indian tribes against States without their consent. Respondents' argument that traditional principles of sovereign immunity restrict suits only by individuals, and not by other sovereigns, was rejected in Monaco v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 313, 322-323, 54 S.Ct. 745, 747-748, 78 L.Ed. 1282. Nor is there merit to respondents' contention that the States consented to suits by tribes in the "plan of the convention." See ibid. Just as in Monaco with regard to foreign sovereigns, see id., at 330, 54 S.Ct., at 751, there is no compelling evidence that the Founders thought that the States waived their immunity with regard to tribes when they adopted the Constitution. Although tribes are in some respects more like States—which may sue each other, South Dakota v. North Carolina, 192 U.S. 286, 318, 24 S.Ct. 269, 275-276, 48 L.Ed. 448 than like foreign sovereigns, it is the mutuality of concession that makes the States' surrender of immunity from suits by sister States plausible. There is no such mutuality with tribes, which have been held repeatedly to enjoy immunity against suits by States. Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Okla., 498 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 905, 911, 112 L.Ed.2d 1112. Pp. 779-782.

2. Section 1362—which grants district courts original jurisdiction to hear "all civil actions, brought by any Indian tribe . . ., wherein the matter in controversy arises under" federal law—does not operate to void the Eleventh Amendment's bar of tribes' suits against States. Pp. 782-788.

(a) Assuming the doubtful proposition that the Federal Government's exemption from state sovereign immunity can be delegated, § 1362 does not embody a general delegation to tribes of the Federal Government's authority, under United States v. Minnesota, 270 U.S. 181, 195, 46 S.Ct. 298, 301, 70 L.Ed. 539, to sue States on the tribes' behalf. Although Moe v. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, 425 U.S. 463, 96 S.Ct. 1634, 48 L.Ed.2d 96—which held that § 1362 revoked as to tribes the Tax Injunction Act's denial of federal court access to persons other than the United States seeking injunctive relief from state taxation—equated tribal access to federal court with the United States' access, it did not purport to do so generally, nor on the basis of a "delegation" theory, nor with respect to constitutional (as opposed to merely statutory) constraints. Pp. 783-786.

(b) Nor does § 1362 abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity. It does not satisfy the standard for congressional abrogation set forth in Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223, 227-228, 109 S.Ct. 2397, 2399-2400, 105 L.Ed.2d 181, since it does not reflect an "unmistakably clear" intent to abrogate immunity, made plain "in the language of the statute." Nor was it a sufficiently clear statement under the less stringent standard of Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U.S. 184, 84 S.Ct. 1207, 12 L.Ed.2d 233, which case (unlike Dellmuth ) had already been decided at the time of § 1362's enactment in 1966. That case neither mentioned nor was premised on abrogation (as opposed to consensual waiver)—and indeed the Court did not even acknowledge the possibility of congressional abrogation until 1976, Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 96 S.Ct. 2666, 49 L.Ed.2d 614. Pp. 786-788.

3. Respondents' argument that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar their claim for injunctive relief must be considered initially by the Court of Appeals on remand. P. 788.

896 F.2d 1157 (CA 9 1990), reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined.

Rex E. Lee, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Lawrence A. Aschenbrenner, Anchorage, Alaska, for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are asked once again to mark the boundaries of state sovereign immunity from suit in federal court. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that immunity did not extend to suits by Indian tribes, and Alaska seeks review of that determination.

I

In 1980, Alaska enacted a revenue-sharing statute that provided annual payments of $25,000 to each "Native village government" located in a community without a state-chartered municipal corporation. Alaska Stat.Ann. § 29.89.050 (1984). The State's attorney general believed the statute to be unconstitutional. In his view, Native village governments were "racially exclusive groups" or "racially exclusive organizations" whose status turned exclusively on the racial ancestry of their members; therefore, the attorney general believed, funding these groups would violate the equal protection clause of Alaska's Constitution. Acting on the attorney general's advice, the Commissioner of Alaska's Department of Community and Regional Affairs (petitioner here), enlarged the program to include all unincorporated communities, whether administered by Native governments or not. Shortly thereafter, the legislature increased funding under the program to match its increased scope. Funding, however, never reached the full $25,000 initially allocated to each unincorporated Native community.

The legislature repealed the revenue-sharing statute in 1985, see 1985 Alaska Sess. Laws, ch. 90, and replaced it with one that matched the program as expanded by the Commissioner. In the same year, respondents filed this suit, challenging the Commissioner's action on federal equal protection grounds, and seeking an order requiring the Commissioner to pay them the money that they would have received had the Commissioner not enlarged the program. The District Court initially granted an injunction to preserve sufficient funds for the 1986 fiscal year, but then dismissed the suit as violating the Eleventh Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, first on the ground that 28 U.S.C. § 1362 constituted a congressional abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity, Native Village of Noatak v. Hoffman, 872 F.2d 1384 (1989) (later withdrawn), and then, upon reconsideration, on the ground that Alaska had no immunity against suits by Indian tribes. 896 F.2d 1157 (1989). We granted certiorari. 498 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 37, 112 L.Ed.2d 14 (1990).

II

The Eleventh Amendment provides as follows:

"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."

Despite the narrowness of its terms, since Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10 S.Ct. 504, 33 L.Ed. 842 (1890), we have understood the Eleventh Amendment to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition of our constitutional structure which it confirms: that the States entered the federal system with their sovereignty intact; that the judicial authority in Article III is limited by this sovereignty, Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transportation, 483 U.S. 468, 472, 107 S.Ct. 2941, 2945, 97 L.Ed.2d 389 (1987) (opinion of Powell, J.); Employees v. Missouri Dept. of Public Health and Welfare, 411 U.S. 279, 290-294, 93 S.Ct. 1614, 1620-1622, 36 L.Ed.2d 251 (1973) (Marshall, J., concurring in result); and that a State will therefore not be subject to suit in federal court unless it has consented to suit, either expressly or in the "plan of the convention." See Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. v. Feeney, 494 U.S. ----, ----, 110 S.Ct. 1868, 1875, 109 L.Ed.2d 264 (1990); Welch, supra, 483 U.S., at 474, 107 S.Ct. at 2946 (opinion of Powell, J); Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 238, 105 S.Ct. 3142, 3145, 87 L.Ed.2d 171 (1985); Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99, 104 S.Ct. 900, 907, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984).

Respondents do not ask us to revisit Hans; instead they argue that the traditional principles of immunity presumed by Hans do not apply to suits by sovereigns like Indian tribes. And even if they did, respondents contend, the States have consented to suits by tribes in the "plan of the convention." We consider these points in turn.

In arguing that sovereign immunity does not restrict suit by Indian tribes, respondents submit, first, that sovereign immunity only restricts suits by individuals against sovereigns, not by sovereigns against sovereigns, and as we have recognized, Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Citizen Band Potawatomi Indian Tribe of Okla., 498 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 905, ----, 112 L.Ed.2d 112 (1991), Indian tribes are sovereigns. Respondents' conception of the nature of sovereign immunity finds some support both in the apparent understanding of the Founders, and in dicta of our own opinions.1 But whatever the reach or meaning of these early statements, the notion that traditional principles of sovereign immunity only restrict suits by individuals was rejected in Monaco v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 313, 54 S.Ct. 745, 78 L.Ed. 1282 (1934). It is with that opinion, and the conception of sovereignty that it embraces, that we must begin.

In Mo...

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