Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida

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Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 11, 1995
Decided March 27, 1996
Full case name Seminole Tribe of Florida, Petitioner v. State of Florida, et al.
Citations 517 U.S. 44 (more)
116 S. Ct. 1114; 134 L. Ed. 2d 252; 1996 U.S. LEXIS 2165; 64 U.S.L.W. 4167; 67 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P43,952; 42 ERC (BNA) 1289; 34 Collier Bankr. Cas. 2d (MB) 1199; 96 Cal. Daily Op. Service 2125; 96 Daily Journal DAR 3499; 9 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 484
Prior history Motion to dismiss denied, 801 F.Supp. 655 (S.D. Fla. 1992); reversed, 11 F. 3d 1016 (11th Cir., 1994)
Congress does not have the power under the Commerce Clause to abrogate the sovereign immunity afforded to states under the 11th Amendment; the doctrine of Ex parte Young, which allows parties to seek relief against state officials for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States, does not apply where Congress has already created what it deems a sufficient remedy.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas
Dissent Stevens
Dissent Souter, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XI

Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996)[1], was a United States Supreme Court case which held that Article One of the U.S. Constitution did not give the United States Congress the power to abrogate the sovereign immunity of the states that is further protected under the Eleventh Amendment. Such abrogation is permitted where it is necessary to enforce the rights of citizens guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment as per Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer 427 U.S. 445 (1976). The case also held that the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), which allows state officials to be sued in their official capacity for prospective injunctive relief, was inapplicable under these circumstances, because any remedy was limited to the one that Congress had provided.


In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a statute requiring the states to negotiate with Indian tribes to create compacts governing Indian Gaming. The statute provided that if a state failed to enter into such negotiations, or to negotiate in good faith, the Tribes could sue the state in federal court in order to compel the states to negotiate. If the states still refused, the statute provided that the matter would ultimately be referred to the Secretary of the Interior. Congress had asserted its power under the part of the Commerce Clause relating to commerce with Indians to pass such a statute, abrogating the immunity of states pursuant to its express powers.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida requested that the state enter into such a negotiation. When the state refused, the Tribe filed suit, as allowed by the statute, against both the state of Florida and the governor, Lawton Chiles. The District Court declined to dismiss the case, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the Eleventh Amendment barred the suit, and that the doctrine of Ex parte Young could not be used to force good faith negotiations.


A little over a decade earlier, in Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976), the Court had held that Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity pursuant to its powers under the Fourteenth Amendment, which clearly contemplates limiting the power of the states. In Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 491 U.S. 1 (1989), the Court had held that Congress could also abrogate sovereign immunity under the Commerce Clause - but there was no majority in that decision. Justice Brennan was joined by three other justices in asserting that the Eleventh Amendment was nothing more than a reflection of common law sovereignty that could be swept aside by Congress; Justice Scalia was also joined by three other justices in taking the opposite view; and Justice Byron White wrote a separate opinion holding that Congress had such power, but stating his disagreement with Brennan's opinion (but not his own rationale).

Now, the Supreme Court was once again presented with the question of whether Congress has the power to abrogate the sovereign immunity of the states, pursuant to the powers granted to it in Article One.


The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, struck down this abrogation as unconstitutional, and further held that the doctrine of Ex parte Young does not apply in this situation.

The Court began by repudiating the precedential value of Union Gas, noting that there was no single majority rationale, and characterizing it as a major departure from the 19th century case of Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890), which had established the modern doctrine of sovereign immunity. The Court suggested that allowing Congress to abrogate sovereign immunity improperly expanded the jurisdiction of the federal courts beyond what Article Three of the U.S. Constitution permitted. The Eleventh Amendment, it contended, had further protected the states' sovereign immunity; the Fourteenth Amendment placed limitations on the Eleventh Amendment, but only with respect to the rights guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court also found that the doctrine of Ex parte Young did not apply, invoking the rationale of an earlier case, Schweiker v. Chilicky, 487 U.S. 412 (1988), for the proposition that where Congress had provided a remedial scheme, the Courts would not imply the existence of additional remedies.


Justice Souter wrote a lengthy dissent in which he was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer. Souter's dissent focuses on the language of the Eleventh Amendment, which only appears to eliminate diversity jurisdiction between states and citizens of other states. He rejects the "critical errors" in Hans, which had read common law sovereign immunity to extend the jurisdictional bar of the Eleventh Amendment to suits between states and their own citizens. Souter discounts the importance of the common law in interpreting the Constitution because the Constitution itself was such a new and unprecedented device at the time of its creation that it was clearly intended as a rejection of the common law that came before it. As support for this contention, Souter notes that the framers of the U.S. Constitution did not include language adopting the common law that had already been adopted by many of the states in their own constitutions. Souter also notes that Congress had rejected proposed language for the Eleventh Amendment which would clearly have barred suits between states and their own citizens, and which would clearly have prevented Congress from abrogating this bar.

Souter also disagrees with the Court's rejection of Ex parte Young, noting that where Chilicky was a rejection of the extra-statutory remedy proposed, Young was merely a jurisdictional device. Souter found it implausible that Congress would wish to see their statute made completely unenforceable simply because they had included a remedy for those injured by the failure of states to abide by it.

Justice Stevens dissented separately, agreeing with the points raised in Souter's dissent, but adding some additional observations. In particular, Stevens noted that neither Justice Iredell's dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793), nor the majority opinion in Hans had addressed situations in which Congress had specifically authorized a lawsuit against a state, and suggested that both opinions had in fact presumed that such a suit was possible.

Later developments

In Alden v. Maine (1999), the Court clarified:

[S]overeign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the structure of the original Constitution itself.... Nor can we conclude that the specific Article I powers delegated to Congress necessarily include, by virtue of the Necessary and Proper Clause or otherwise, the incidental authority to subject the States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the scope of the enumerated powers.

In Central Virginia Community College v. Katz (2006), the Court narrowed the scope of its ruling in Seminole Tribe v. Florida. It held the Bankruptcy Clause of Article I abrogated state sovereign immunity.

See also

External links

  • ^ Text of Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 
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