Pennoyer v. Connaughy

Decision Date20 April 1891
Citation11 S.Ct. 699,35 L.Ed. 363,140 U.S. 1
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Statement of Case from pages 2-6 intentionally omitted] Mr. Lewis L. McArthur and Mr. H. H. Northup for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 6-8 intentionally omitted] C. A. Dolph and C. B. Bellinger, for appellee.

Mr. Justice LAMAR, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The contention of the complainant below was that the act of 1887, under which the defendants below assumed to act, in the matter of the cancellation of his certificates of sale, was in violation of section 10, art. 1, of the constitution of the United States, in that it impaired the obligation of the contract made between Owen and the state for the sale of the lands; that the defendants were therefore acting in the premises without authority of law; and that for those reasons it could not be asserted that the suit was against the state. The defendants, on the other hand, insisted that the aforesaid legislation was valid and constitutional; that the suit was, in effect, against the state; and that therefore the circuit court was forbidden to exercise jurisdiction in the matter by the eleventh amendment to the constitution. This appeal, therefore, involves the construction and appli- cation of two distinct provisions of the constitution which are set up, one against the other, by the parties to the controversy, in support of their respective contentions. The complainant below bases his claim for the relief prayed for upon that clause of section 10, art. 1, which provides that 'no state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts;' while the defendants below, the appellees, rely upon the eleventh amendment to the constitution, which declares that 'the judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit, in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against any of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of a foreign state.' The question, then, of jurisdiction is first presented for determination. Is this suit, in legal effect, one against a state, within the meaning of the eleventh amendment to the constitution? A very large number of cases involving a variety of questions arising under this amendment have been before this court for adjudication; and, as might naturally be expected, in view of the important interests and the wide-reaching political relations involved, the dissenting opinions have been numerous. Still, the general principles enunciated by these adjudications will, upon a review of the whole, be found to be such as the majority of the court and the dissentients are substantially agreed upon.

It is well settled that no action can be maintained in any federal court by the citizens of one of the states against a state, without its consent, even though the sole object of such suit be to bring the state within the operation of the constitutional provision which provides that 'no state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.' This immunity of a state from suit is absolute and unqualified, and the constitutional provision securing it is not to be so construed as to place the state within the reach of the process of the court. Accordingly, it is equally well settled that a suit against the officers of a state, to compel them to do the acts which constitute a performance by it of its contracts, is, in effect, a suit against the state itself. In the application of this latter principle, two classes of cases have appeared in the decisions of this court, and it is in determining to which class a particular case belongs that differing views have been presented. The first class is where the suit is brought against the officers of the state, as representing the state's action and liability, thus making it, though not a party to the record, the real party, againstwhi ch the judgment will so operate as to compel it to specifically perform its contracts. In re Ayers, 123 U. S. 443, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 164; State v. Jumel, 107 U. S. 711, 2 Sup. Ct. Rep. 128; Antoni v. Greenhow, 107 U. S. 769, 2 Sup. Ct. Rep. 91; Cunningham v. Railroad Co., 109 U. S. 446, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 292, 609; Hagood v. Southern, 117 U. S. 52, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 608. The other class is where a suit is brought against defendants who, claiming to act as officers of the state, and under the color of an unconstitutional statute, commit acts of wrong and injury to the rights and property of the plaintiff acquired under a contract with the state. Such suit, whether brought to recover money or property in the hands of such defendants, unlawfully taken by them in behalf of the state, or for compensation in damages, or, in a proper case where the remedy at law is inadequate, for an injunction to prevent such wrong and injury, or for a mandamus, in a like case, to enforce upon the defendant the performance of a plain, legal duty, purely ministerial, is not, within the meaning of the eleventh amendment, an action against the state. Osborn v. Bank, 9 Wheat. 738; Davis v. Gray, 16 Wall. 203; Tomlinson v. Branch, 15 Wall. 460; Litchfield v. Webster Co., 101 U. S. 773; Allen v. Railroad Co., 114 U. S. 311, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 925, 962; Board v. McComb, 92 U. S. 531; Poindexter v. Greenhow, 114 U. S. 270, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 903, 962. It is not our purpose to attempt a review of all, or even many, of these decisions, as to do so intelligently would unnecessarily protract this opinion, and, in this connection, would subserve no useful purpose. It will be sufficient, perhaps, to refer to some of those which this case most nearly resembles.

It is believed that the case before us is within the principles of the great and leading case of Osborn v. Bank, 9 Wheat. 738, the opinion in which was delivered by Chief Justice MARSHALL. That was a suit in equity, brought in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Ohio, by the president, directors, and company of the Bank of the United States, to restrain Ralph Osborn, auditor of the state of Ohio, from executing a law of that state which was in violation of and destructive to the rights and privileges conferred upon the complainants by the charter of the bank and by the constitution of the United States. One of the leading inquiries in the case was whether an injunction could be issued to restrain a person, who was a state officer, from performing an official act enjoined by the statute of the state. The question presented by that inquiry was discussed, in a masterly manner, on the assumption that the statute of the state was unconstitutional, and it was held that in such a case, grounds of equity interposition existing, injunction would lie. With regard to the objection that, if any case was made by the bill for the interference of a court of chancery, it was against the state of Ohio, and was therefore within the prohibition of the eleventh amendment, the court held that the exemption of the state from suability could not be pleaded by its officers when they were proceeded against for executing an unconstitutional act of the state. This question was discussed most thoroughly, in the light of the other provisions of the constitution relating to the jurisdiction of the federal courts, and the conclusion arrived at thus announced: 'It was proper, then, to make a decree against the defendants in the circuit court, if the law of the state of Ohio be repugnant to the constitution, or to a law of the United States made in pursuance thereof, so as to furnish no authority to those who took or to those who received the money for which this suit was instituted.' 9 Wheat. 859. The statute of Ohio, under which the defendant was acting, was then examined, and found to be unconstitutional. The case may then be said to have fully established the doctrine that an officer of a state may be enjoined from executing a statute of the state which is in confict with the constitution of the United States, when such execution would violate and destroy the rights and privileges of the complainant. The principle stated by Chief Justice MAR SHALL, in that case that, 'in all cases where jurisdiction depends on the party, it is the party named in the record,' and that 'the eleventh amendment is limited to those suits in which the state is a party to the record,' has been qualified to a certain degree in some of the subsequent decisions of this court; and now it is the settled doctrine of this court that the question whether a suit is within the prohibition of the eleventh amendment is not always determined by reference to the nominal parties on the record, as the court will look behind and through the nominal parties on the record to ascertain who are the real parties to the suit. New Hampshire v. Louisiana, and New York v. Louisiana, 108 U. S. 76, 2 Sup. Ct. Rep. 176; In re Ayers, supra. But the general doctrine of Osborn v. Bank, that the circuit courts of the United States will restrain a state officer from executing an unconstitutional statute of the state, when to execute it would violate rights and privileges of the complainant which had been guarantied by the constitution, and would work irreparable damage and injury to him, has never been departed from. On the contrary, the principles of that case have been recognized and enforced in a very large number of cases, notably in those we have referred to as belonging to the second class of cases above mentioned.

In Davis v. Gray the state of Texas had granted to a railroad corporation of that state 16 alternate sections of land per mile along the line of the road which was thereafter to be located. The company surveyed the lands, and located its road through them. After all those things had been done, the commissioner of the state land-office and the governor of the state, acting under the authority of a statute of the state which had declared the lands forfeited to the state, were selling certain of...

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