We all learned in grade school about the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, which the Founding Fathers enacted to protect the rights of individuals. Unfortunately, relatively few are aware of what came next: the Eleventh Amendment, which limits enforcement of those rights against states under the principle of sovereign immunity. Many civil rights cases have suffered quick but painful deaths because the plaintiffs’ lawyers filing them did not know of these restrictions.
The Eleventh Amendment says a citizen of one state may not sue another state in federal court. Sounds simple and rarely applicable, right? Wrong! For well over 100 years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to mean much more than it says. Basically, no person may assert a federal claim against a state in any court unless Congress specifically allows it or the state agrees to be sued.
Under the Eleventh Amendment, technical distinctions are often critical. Suppose, for example, that California denies you a driver’s license on the basis of your race. Here is how the Eleventh Amendment’s doctrine of sovereign immunity limits your rights to sue under the Equal Protection Clause:
You may obtain an injunction ordering the issuance of a driver’s license, but only if you sue a state officer rather than the state itself. If you name the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles as the defendant, you win. If you name the Department of Motor Vehicles or the State of California itself, you lose. The Eleventh Amendment allows you to recover attorney’s fees if you prevail, but you cannot obtain damages no matter who your defendant is.
Now suppose a city denies you a permit on the basis of your race. Any Eleventh Amendment problem? No, because a city is not a state. The Eleventh Amendment only protects states, not their subdivisions, but there are exceptions to this rule, too.
This account of the Eleventh Amendment is as simplistic as the observation that stepping on the gas makes a car go. It is true up to a point, but there is a lot more to the functioning of an automobile than that.
The good news is that the rules of sovereign immunity are well established. If you are contemplating a lawsuit against a state or one of its subdivisions and are not already at home with this complex doctrine, you should consider consulting an expert to avoid the surprise, delay, and expense that result from dismissal under the Eleventh Amendment.