A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Eleventh

The scene at the signing of the US Constitution.

‘The only people who benefit from lawsuits are lawyers. I think we made a couple of them rich.’

> Gavin Rossdale

The Eleventh Amendment is the first of the Constitution to be adopted after the Bill of Rights was Ratified. The process for adding an amendment to the Constitution was clearly laid out. The founders knew that the needs of the states would change over time and the Constitution would need to be amended. There are 2 different times in which an Amendment can be proposed. One is the Amendment is proposed to Congress, the other is called an Article V convention of states. The Convention of States is when the legislatures of the states get together and propose their own amendment. Both of these must be ratified by two-thirds of the states meaning that the vast majority of the states and people must be willing to issue a mandate to the government to change the fabric of our government.

While we are all familiar with the first ten and some of the following amendments that help restrict the government from harming its own citizens. The Eleventh Amendment is unique in that it protects the government from the people to a certain extent. While it’s worth noting that guaranteeing the government must keep its hands out of certain things, we must also allow the government to actually function.

The text of the Eleventh Amendment 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.”. This amendment was actually born out of a Supreme Court case. In Chisolm v. Georgia (1793) the Supreme Court ruled that the citizens of another state had standing to sue another state. This was decided on the idea that the state is an idea comprised of actual people as opposed to an entity.

This did not sit well as the ruling would allow the people of the states to countersue each other for slights and nothing would ever be accomplished. With that in mind, the text of the Eleventh Amendment was proposed to Congress on March 4, 1794. It was ratified by the requisite number of States on February 7, 1795. In essence the Eleventh Amendment makes it certain that you can’t sue another state for something that you feel has slighted you. This does not make the state you live in immune to a suit brought on by their own citizens. It ensures that the states don’t have to worry how governing their own citizens will affect those of other states.

This is particularly important in the case of Alden v. Maine(1999). This was a case dealing with cases brought against a state by its own citizens. The plaintiffs in this case wanted the court settled in the Federal District courts, while the State of Maine held that it had sovereignty in the case based in the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments. While split 5-4, the court sided with the State of Maine. This was important as they stated this would have been a violation of the Sovereignty of the states as held under the Eleventh Amendment. They also said, however, that this does not allow states of supersede federal courts under the Supremacy Clause.

Ultimately the Eleventh Amendment was historical for not only guaranteeing the sovereignty of the states in the US but by being the first Amendment to the Constitution that was not part of the Bill of Rights. The process for passing Amendments was not always as smooth as this one, however, and as we explore the rest of the Constitution it will become plain that the quick passage of a Constitutional Amendment is the exception rather than the norm.


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