Alden v. Maine

LOCATION: Alden's Workplace

DOCKET NO.: 98-436
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Maine Supreme Judicial Court

CITATION: 527 US 706 (1999)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 23, 1999

Laurence E. Gold - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Peter J. Brann - Argued the cause for the respondent
Seth P. Waxman - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court

Facts of the case

A group of probation officers sued their employer, the State of Maine, in 1992 alleging that the state had violated the overtime provisions of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Following the Court's decision in Seminole Tribe v. Florida (1996) which held that States are immune from private suits in federal court and that Congress lacks the authority to abrogate that immunity the probation officers' suit was dismissed in Federal district court. Alden and the other probation officers then sued Maine again for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, this time in state court. The state trial court and the state supreme court both held that Maine had sovereign immunity and could not be sued by private parties in their own court.


May Congress use its powers under Article I of the Constitution to abrogate a state's sovereign immunity from private suits in its own courts?

Media for Alden v. Maine

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1999 in Alden v. Maine

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 1999 in Alden v. Maine

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court number 98-436, Alden against Maine will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The petitioners are a group of Probation Officers.

They filed an action against their employer which was the State of Maine.They filed in State Court seeking relief under a federal statute.

They sought damages for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The State Trial Court dismissed the suit on the basis of the State of Maine Sovereign Immunity, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

We also affirm.

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, and the State of Maine has not consented to this suit.

Because the Eleventh Amendment makes explicit reference to the State's immunity to private suits, we sometimes refer to the State Sovereign Immunity as "Eleventh Amendment Immunity".

The phrase is a convenient shorthand, but really something of a misnomer, for State Sovereign Immunity neither derives from nor is limited by the terms of the Eleventh Amendment.

Rather the constitution structure and its history and the authoritative interpretations by this Court make clear that the State's immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today, except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional amendments.

The generation that designed and adopted our constitutional system of federalism considered immunity from private suits central to sovereign dignity.

The leading advocates of the Constitution including Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Marshall, assured the people in no uncertain terms that the Constitution would not strip the States of Sovereign Immunity.

The State conventions which addressed the issue in their formal ratification documents agreed.

When the Supreme Court held in Chisholm versus Georgia that a non-consenting State could be sued by a private individual in Federal Court, the decision was promptly and all but unanimously overruled by the Eleventh Amendment.

The Court has been consistent in interpreting the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment as conclusive evidence that the decision in Chisholm was contrary to the well understood meaning of the Constitution.

That last was a quotation from my recent case in Seminole Tribe.

In Hans versus Louisiana, decided in 1890, the Court held that sovereign immunity barred a citizen from suing his own State under the federal question head of jurisdiction.

The Court was unmoved by the petitioner's argument of the Eleventh Amendment by its terms applied only to suits brought by citizens of other States.

Latest decisions rejected similar request to conform the principle of sovereign immunity to the strict language of the Eleventh Amendment, and the opinion recites this line of precedence in which we hold that non-consenting States are immune from suits bought by federal corporations foreign nations, Indian Tribes and suits in admiralty case.

These holdings reflect a settled doctrinal understanding, consistent with the views of the leading advocates of the Constitution's ratification, that sovereign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the structure of the original Constitution itself.

Whether the Constitutional plan grants Congress authority under Article I to abrogate a State sovereign immunity in its own courts is a question of first impression.

We look first at the evidence of the original understanding of the Constitution.

The petitioners contend that because the debates on the ratification of the Constitution and the events surrounding the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment focused on the States immunity from suit in Federal Courts.

The historical record gives no instruction as to the founding generation's intent to preserve the States immunity from suit in their own courts.

We believe however that the founder's silence is best explained by the simple fact that no one, not even the Constitution's most ardent opponents, suggested that the document might strip the States of the immunity.

The concern's voice of the ratifying conventions about State sovereign immunity, and the furor raised by Chisholm and the speed and unanimity with which the Eleventh Amendment was adopted underscore the jealous care with which the founding generation sought to preserve the sovereign immunity of the States.

In light of the historical record it is difficult to conceive that the Constitution would have been adopted.

If it had been understood strip States of immunity from suing their own Courts and cede that the Federal Government a power to subject non-consenting States to private suits there.

This case at one level concerns the formal structure of federalism, but in a Constitution as resilient as ours form mirror substance.

Congress has vast power, but not all power.