The first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Since these amendments have already been discussed here, this next series will discuss the other amendments to the US Constitution. Amendments are additions to the Constitution that were added after the original version was ratified into law. The Constitution is meant to be a living document that can adapt with the times using the amendment process. As you will see, some of these amendments were extremely topical to the times in which they were added to our nation’s governing document.
There were fifteen states at the time the eleventh amendment was added to the Constitution. The approval of twelve states was needed to ratify the amendment. This was achieved in February of 1795, almost a year after it was proposed in March of 1794. South Carolina later ratified the amendment in December of 1797, after it was already law. New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not vote on the amendment at all at the time, though New Jersey did retroactively ratify it in June of 2018, in a symbolic act, as the amendment was already part of the Constitution.
What Does it Say?
The exact text of the eleventh amendments reads:
The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.
What Does it Mean?
The eleventh amendment was proposed because of Congress’s desire to overrule the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1793 Chisholm vs Georgia case. Under the original Constitution, the only way a Supreme Court ruling to be overturned would be for Congress to make a constitutional amendment that addressed it (as the primary purpose of the Supreme Court is to rule on whether or not laws passed by the states and the federal government are constitutional).
In the Chisholm case, the Supreme Court ruled that the states did not have immunity from lawsuits by citizens of other states made against the states in a federal court. The eleventh amendment made it so that the federal courts no longer have the authority to try cases that are brought by private citizens and businesses against states where they do not reside.
The Supreme Court later interpreted the eleventh amendment to apply to all federal lawsuits brought against states by private citizens or businesses. The Supreme Court also ruled that Congress can repeal state sovereignty from lawsuits when it uses its authority under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the bankruptcy clause repeals state sovereignty immunity in bankruptcy cases. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts can keep state officials from violating federal law.
The Eleventh Amendment gives immunity to the states from lawsuits for monetary damages or equitable damages without the consent of those states. When it was ratified into law, every pending federal court action brought under the Chisholm ruling was required to be dismissed.
While the amendment does not mention lawsuits brought against a state by citizens who live there, the Supreme Court ruled in 1890 that the amendment does give states this broader immunity. In 1999, Justice Anthony Kennedy of the US Supreme Court wrote of the eleventh amendment:
“Sovereign 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 the incidental authority to subject the States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the scope of the enumerated powers.”