LegalMBE

Con Law Quick Tip: State Immunity under the 11th Amendment

Remember the Eleventh Amendment? You know, the constitutional amendment that prohibits the federal courts from hearing certain lawsuits against states? If you clear out the cobwebs that have formed since your 1L year, you’ll remember that the Eleventh Amendment ensures that states retain their sovereign status within the federal system. As a result, states are generally immune from suits brought by private parties and foreign governments in federal court. This immunity also extends to suits brought against a state official for violating a federal law—with some exceptions (see table below). 

However, Eleventh Amendment immunity does not extend to any of the following: 

  • suits brought by the United States or another state
  • suits asserted against a local government (e.g., city, county) 
  • suits initiated in bankruptcy court

UWorld condensed the nuances of state immunity under the Eleventh Amendment into the following table:

Eleventh Amendment (state immunity from suit in federal court)
Immunity applies 
  • Suits brought by private party or foreign government
  • Suits against state official violating state law

Exceptions:

  • State consents to suitImmunity repealed by enforcing 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendment
  • State official sued for injunctive or declaratory relief
  • Damages to be paid by state official personally (not state treasury)
  • State official sued for prospective (not retroactive) damages to be paid by state treasury
No immunity
  • Suits brought by United States or other state
  • Suits against local government (e.g., counties, municipalities)
  • Bankruptcy proceedings 

Remember that Congress cannot override a state’s Eleventh Amendment immunity through its enumerated powers (e.g., power to regulate interstate commerce, power to protect copyrights and patents). However, it can abrogate or repeal a state’s immunity by clearly acting to enforce any of the Civil War Amendments, which are described in the following table: 

Civil War Amendments
ThirteenthProhibits slavery & involuntary servitude
FourteenthProhibits denial of equal protection, due process, or privileges/immunities of national citizenship
FifteenthProhibits denial or abridgment of voting rights based on race, color, or previous servitude

Now that you’re caught up on state immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, go tackle some constitutional law questions in the UWorld MBE® QBank! Click here to access our QBank or purchase a subscription.