Right of the United States to Sue.—In the first edition of his Treatise, Justice Story noted that while an express power is no where given in the constitution, the right of the United States to sue in its own courts is clearly implied in that part respecting the judicial power.... Indeed, all the usual incidents appertaining to a personal sovereign, in relation to contracts, and suing, and enforcing rights, so far as they are within the scope of the powers of the government, belong to the United States, as they do to other sovereigns.880 As early as 1818, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States could sue in its own name in all cases of contract without congressional authorization of such suits.881 Later, this rule was extended to other types of actions. In the absence of statutory provisions to the contrary, such suits are initiated by the Attorney General in the name of the United States.882
By the Judiciary Act of 1789, and subsequent amendments thereof, Congress has vested in the federal district courts jurisdiction to hear all suits of a civil nature at law or in equity brought by the United States as party plaintiff.883 As in other judicial proceedings, the United States, like any party plaintiff, must have an interest in the subject matter and a legal right to the remedy sought.884 Under the long settled principle that the courts have the power to abate public nuisances at the suit of the Government, the provision in § 208(2) of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1949, authorizing federal courts to enjoin strikes which imperil national health or safety was upheld for the reason that the statute entrusts the courts with the determination of a case or controversy on which the judicial power can operate and does not impose any legislative, executive, or non-judicial function. Moreover, the fact that the rights sought to be protected were those of the public in unimpeded production in industries vital to public health, as distinguished from the private rights of labor and management, was held not to alter the adversary (case or controversy) nature of the litigation instituted by the United States as the guardian of the aforementioned rights.885 Also, by reason of the highest public interest in the fulfillment of all constitutional guarantees, including those that bear . . . directly on private rights, . . . it [is] perfectly competent for Congress to authorize the United States to be the guardian of that public interest in a suit for injunctive relief.886
880 3 J. STORY, COMMENTARIES ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES 1274 (1833), (emphasis in original).
881 Dugan v. United States, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 172 (1818).
882 United States v. San Jacinto Tin Co., 125 U.S. 273 (1888); United States v. Beebe, 127 U.S. 338 (1888); United States v. Bell Telephone Co., 128 U.S. 315 (1888). Whether without statutory authorization the United States may sue to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens has occasioned conflict. Compare United States v. Brand Jewelers, 318 F. Supp. 1293 (S.D.N.Y. 1970), and United States v. Brittain, 319 F. Supp. 1658 (S.D.Ala. 1970), with United States v. Mattson, 600 F.2d 1295 (9th Cir. 1979), and United States v. Solomon, 563 F.2d 1121 (4th Cir. 1977). The result in Mattson and Solomon was altered by specific authorization in the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, Pub. L. 96-247, 94 Stat. 349 (1980), 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq. And see United States v. City of Philadelphia, 644 F.2d 187 (3d Cir. 1980) (no standing to sue to correct allegedly unconstitutional police practices).
883 28 U.S.C. § 1345. By virtue of the fact that the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court extends only to those cases enumerated in the Constitution, jurisdiction over suits brought by the United States against persons or corporations is vested in the lower federal courts. But suits by the United States against a State may be brought in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1251(b)(2), but may as well be brought in the district court. Case v. Bowles, 327 U.S. 92, 97 (1946).
884 United States v. San Jacinto Tin Co., 125 U.S. 273 (1888).
885 United Steelworkers v. United States, 361 U.S. 39, 43-44 (1960), citing In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895).
886 United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17, 27 (1960), upholding jurisdiction of the federal court as to an action to enjoin state officials from discriminating against African-American citizens seeking to vote in state elections. See also Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970), in which two of the four cases considered were actions by the United States to enjoin state compliance with the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970.
Suits Against States.—Controversies to which the United States is a party include suits brought against States as party defendants. The first such suit occurred in United States v. North Carolina,887 which was an action by the United States to recover upon bonds issued by North Carolina. Although no question of jurisdiction was raised, in deciding the case on its merits in favor of the State, the Court tacitly assumed that it had jurisdiction of such cases. The issue of jurisdiction was directly raised by Texas a few years later in a bill in equity brought by the United States to determine the boundary between Texas and the Territory of Oklahoma, and the Court sustained its jurisdiction over strong arguments by Texas to the effect that it could not be sued by the United States without its consent and that the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction did not extend to cases to which the United States is a party.888 Stressing the inclusion within the judicial power of cases to which the United States and a State are parties, the elder Justice Harlan pointed out that the Constitution made no exception of suits brought by the United States. In effect, therefore, consent to be sued by the United States was given by Texas when admitted to the Union upon an equal footing in all respects with the other States.889
887 136 U.S. 211 (1890).
888 United States v. Texas, 143 U.S. 621 (1892).
889 143 U.S. at 642-46. This suit, it may be noted, was specifically authorized by the Act of Congress of May 2, 1890, providing for a temporary government for the Oklahoma territory to determine the ownership of Greer County. 26 Stat. 81, 92, § 25. See also United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699, 701-02 (1950).
Suits brought by the United States have, however, been infrequent. All of them have arisen since 1889, and they have become somewhat more common since 1926. That year the Supreme Court decided a dispute between the United States and Minnesota over land patents issued to the State by the United States in breach of its trust obligations to the Indian.890 In United States v. West Virginia,891 the Court refused to take jurisdiction of a suit in equity brought by the United States to determine the navigability of the New and Kanawha Rivers on the ground that the jurisdiction in such suits is limited to cases and controversies and does not extend to the adjudication of mere differences of opinion between the officials of the two governments. A few years earlier, however, it had taken jurisdiction of a suit by the United States against Utah to quiet title to land forming the beds of certain sections of the Colorado River and its tributaries with the States.892 Similarly, it took jurisdiction of a suit brought by the United States against California to determine the ownership of and paramount rights over the submerged land and the oil and gas thereunder off the coast of California between the low-water mark and the three-mile limit.893 Like suits were decided against Louisiana and Texas in 1950.894
Immunity of the United States From Suit.—Pursuant to the general rule that a sovereign cannot be sued in its own courts, it follows that the judicial power does not extend to suits against the United States unless Congress by general or special enactment consents to suits against the Government. This rule first emanated in embryonic form in an obiter dictum by Chief Justice Jay in Chisholm v. Georgia, where he indicated that a suit would not lie against the United States because there is no power which the courts can call to their aid.895 In Cohens v. Virginia,896 also by way of dictum, Chief Justice Marshall asserted, the universally received opinion is that no suit can be commenced or prosecuted against the United States. The issue was more directly in question in United States v. Clarke,897 where Chief Justice Marshall stated that as the United States is not suable of common right, the party who institutes such suit must bring his case within the authority of some act of Congress, or the court cannot exercise jurisdiction over it. He thereupon ruled that the act of May 26, 1830, for the final settlement of land claims in Florida condoned the suit. The doctrine of the exemption of the United States from suit was repeated in various subsequent cases, without discussion or examination.898 Indeed, it was not until United States v. Lee899 that the Court examined the rule and the reasons for it, and limited its application accordingly.
890 United States v. Minnesota, 270 U.S. 181 (1926). For an earlier suit against a State by the United States, see United States v. Michigan, 190 U.S. 379 (1903).
891 295 U.S. 463 (1935).
892 United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64 (1931).
893 United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947).
894 United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699 (1950); United States v. Texas, 339 U.S. 707 (1950). See also United States v. Maine, 420 U.S. 515 (1975)
895 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 478 (1793).
896 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 412 (1821).
897 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 436, 444 (1834).
898 United States v. McLemore, 45 U.S. (4 How.) 286 (1846); Hill v. United States, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 386, 389 (1850); De Groot v. United States, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 419, 431 (1867); United States v. Eckford, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 484, 488 (1868); The Siren, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 152, 154 (1869); Nichols v. United States, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 122, 126 (1869); The Davis, 77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 15, 20 (1870); Carr v. United States, 98 U.S. 433, 437-439 (1879). It is also clear that the Federal Government, in the absence of its consent, is not liable in tort for the negligence of its agents or employees. Gibbons v. United States, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 269, 275 (1869); Peabody v. United States, 231 U.S. 530, 539 (1913); Koekuk & Hamilton Bridge Co. v. United States, 260 U.S. 125, 127 (1922). The reason for such immunity as stated by Mr. Justice Holmes in Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353 (1907), is because there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends. See also the Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 433 (1922). As the Housing Act does not purport to authorize suits against the United States as such, the question is whether the Authority—which is clearly an agency of the United States—partakes of this sovereign immunity. The answer must be sought in the intention of the Congress. Sloan Shipyards v. United States Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549, 570 (1922); Federal Land Bank v. Priddy, 295 U.S. 229, 231 (1935). This involves a consideration of the extent to which other Government-owned corporations have been held liable for their wrongful acts. 39 Ops. Atty. Gen. 559, 562 (1938).
899 106 U.S. 196 (1882).
Since suits against the United States can be maintained only by permission, it follows that they can be brought only in the manner prescribed by Congress and subject to the restrictions imposed.900 Only Congress can take the necessary steps to waive the immunity of the United States from liability for claims, and hence officers of the United States are powerless by their actions either to waive such immunity or to confer jurisdiction on a federal court.901 Even when authorized, suits can be brought only in designated courts.902 These rules apply equally to suits by States against the United States.903 Although an officer acting as a public instrumentality is liable for his own torts, Congress may grant or withhold immunity from suit on behalf of government corporations.904
900 Lonergan v. United States, 303 U.S. 33 (1938). Waivers of immunity must be express. Library of Congress v. Shaw, 461 U.S. 273 (1983) (Civil Rights Act provision that the United States shall be liable for costs the same as a private person insufficient to waive immunity from awards of interest). The result in Shaw was overturned by a specific waiver. Civil Rights Act of 1991, Pub. L. 102-166, 106 Stat. 1079, § 113, amending 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16. Immunity was waived, with limitations, for contracts and takings claims in the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2). Immunity of the United States for the negligence of its employees was waived, again with limitations, in the Federal Tort Claims Act. 28 U.S.C. §1346(b). For recent waivers of sovereign immunity, see Pub. L. 94-574, § 1, 90 Stat. 2721 (1976), amending 5 U.S.C. § 702 (waiver for nonstatutory review in all cases save for suits for money damages); Pub. L. 87-748, § 1(a), 76 Stat. 744 (1962), 28 U.S.C. § 1361 (giving district courts jurisdiction of mandamus actions to compel an officer or employee of the United States to perform a duty owed to plaintiff); Westfall Act, 102 Stat. 4563, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d) (torts of federal employees acting officially). See FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471 (1994) (FSLIC’s sue-and-be-sued clause waives sovereign immunity; but a Bivens implied cause of action for constitutional torts cannot be used directly against FSLIC).
901 United States v. New York Rayon Co., 329 U.S. 654 (1947).
902 United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495 (1940). Any consent to be sued will not be held to embrace action in the federal courts unless the language giving consent is clear. Great Northern Life Ins. Co. v. Read, 322 U.S. 47 (1944).
The earlier narrow interpretation of the exceptions to the waiver of immunity set forth in the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), gradually has given way to a liberal construction. Compare Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953), with Indian Towing Co. v. United States, 350 U.S. 61 (1955).
903 Minnesota v. United States, 305 U.S. 382 (1939). The United States was held here to be an indispensable party defendant in a condemnation proceeding brought by a State to acquire a right of way over lands owned by the United States and held in trust for Indian allottees. See also Block v. North Dakota, 461 U.S. 273 (1983).
904 Brady v. Roosevelt S.S. Co., 317 U.S. 575 (1943).
Suits Against United States Officials.—United States v. Lee, a five-to-four decision, qualified earlier holdings that a judgment affecting the property of the United States was in effect against the United States, by ruling that title to the Arlington estate of the Lee family, then being used as a national cemetery, was not legally vested in the United States but was being held illegally by army officers under an unlawful order of the President. In its examination of the sources and application of the rule of sovereign immunity, the Court concluded that the rule if not absolutely limited to cases in which the United States are made defendants by name, is not permitted to interfere with the judicial enforcement of the rights of plaintiff when the United States is not a defendant or a necessary party to the suit.905 Except, nevertheless, for an occasional case like Kansas v. United States,906 which held that a State cannot sue the United States, most of the cases involving sovereign immunity from suit since 1883 have been cases against officers, agencies, or corporations of the United States where the United States has not been named as a party defendant. Thus, it has been held that a suit against the Secretary of the Treasury to review his decision on the rate of duty to be exacted on imported sugar would disturb the whole revenue system of the Government and would in effect be a suit against the United States.907 Even more significant is Stanley v. Schwalby,908 which resembled without paralleling United States v. Lee, where it was held that an action of trespass against an army officer to try title in a parcel of land occupied by the United States as a military reservation was a suit against the United States because a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs would have been a judgment against the United States.
905 United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 207-208 (1882). The Tucker Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), now displaces the specific rule of the case, inasmuch as it provides jurisdiction against the United States for takings claims.
906 204 U.S. 331 (1907).
907 Louisiana v. McAdoo, 234 U.S. 627, 628 (1914).
Subsequent cases repeat and reaffirm the rule of United States v. Lee that where the right to possession or enjoyment of property under general law is in issue, the fact that defendants claim the property as officers or agents of the United States does not make the action one against the United States until it is determined that they were acting within the scope of their lawful authority.909 Contrariwise, the rule that a suit in which the judgment would affect the United States or its property is a suit against the United States has also been repeatedly approved and reaffirmed.910 But, as the Court has pointed out, it is not an easy matter to reconcile all of the decisions of the court in this class of cases,911 and, as Justice Frankfurter quite justifiably stated in a dissent, the subject is not free from casuistry.912 Justice Douglas’ characterization of Land v. Dollar, this is the type of case where the question of jurisdiction is dependent on decision of the merits,913 is frequently applicable.
The case of Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp.,914 illuminates these obscurities somewhat. A private company sought to enjoin the Administrator of the War Assets in his official capacity from selling surplus coal to others than the plaintiff who had originally bought the coal, only to have the sale cancelled by the Administrator because of the company’s failure to make an advance payment. Chief Justice Vinson and a majority of the Court looked upon the suit as one brought against the Administrator in his official capacity, acting under a valid statute and therefore a suit against the United States. It held that although an officer in such a situation is not immune from suits for his own torts, yet his official action, though tortious, cannot be enjoined or diverted, since it is also the action of the sovereign.915 The Court then proceeded to repeat the rule that the action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking, or otherwise legally affecting the plaintiff’s property) can be regarded as so individual only if it is not within the officer’s statutory powers, or, if within those powers, only if the powers or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void.916 The Court rejected the contention that the doctrine of sovereign immunity should be relaxed as inapplicable to suits for specific relief as distinguished from damage suits, saying: The Government, as representative of the community as a whole, cannot be stopped in its tracks by any plaintiff who presents a disputed question of property or contract right.917
908 162 U.S. 255 (1896). Justice Gray endeavored to distinguish between this case and Lee. Id. at 271. It was Justice Gray who spoke for the dissenters in Lee.
909 Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 737 (1947).
910 Oregon v. Hitchcock, 202 U.S. 60 (1906); Louisiana v. Garfield, 211 U.S. 70 (1908); New Mexico v. Lane, 243 U.S. 52 (1917); Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335 (1918); Morrison v. Work, 266 U.S. 481 (1925); Minnesota v. United States, 305 U.S.. 382 (1939); Mine Safety Co. v. Forrestal, 326 U.S. 371 (1945). See also Minnesota v. Hitchcock, 185 U.S. 373 (1902).
911 Cunningham v. Macon & Brunswick R.R., 109 U.S. 446, 451 (1883), quoted by Chief Justice Vinson in the opinion of the Court in Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 698 (1949).
912 Larson, 337 U.S. at 708. Justice Frankfurter’s dissent also contains a useful classification of immunity cases and an appendix listing them.
913 330 U.S. 731, 735 (1947) (emphasis added).
914 337 U.S. 682 (1949).
915 337 U.S. at 689-97.
916 337 U.S. at 701-02. This rule was applied in Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U.S. 218 (1913), which also involved a sale of government surplus property. After the Secretary of the Navy rejected the highest bid, plaintiff sought mandamus to compel delivery. This suit was held to be against the United States. See also Perkins v. Lukens Steel Co., 310 U.S. 113 (1940), which held that prospective bidders for contracts derive no enforceable rights against a federal official for an alleged misinterpretation of his government’s authority on the ground that an agent is answerable only to his principal for misconstruction of instructions, given for the sole benefit of the principal. In Larson the Court not only refused to follow Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U.S. 536 (1926), but in effect overruled it. The Goltra case involved an attempt of the Government to repossess barges which it had leased under a contract reserving the right to repossess in certain circumstances. A suit to enjoin repossession was held not to be a suit against the United States on the ground that the actions were personal and in the nature of a trespass. Also decided in harmony with the Larson decision are the following, wherein the suit was barred as being against the United States: (1) Malone v. Bowdoin, 369 U.S. 643 (1962), a suit to eject a Forest Service Officer from land occupied by him in his official capacity under a claim of title from the United States; and (2) Hawaii v. Gordon, 373 U.S. 57 (1963), an original action by Hawaii against the Director of the Budget for an order directing him to determine whether a parcel of federal land could be conveyed to that State. In Dugan v. Rank, 372 U.S. 609 (1963), the Court ruled that inasmuch as the storing and diverting of water at the Friant Dam resulted, not in a trespass, but in a partial, although a casual day-by-day, taking of water rights of claimants along the San Joaquin River below the dam, a suit to enjoin such diversion by Federal Bureau of Reclamation officers was an action against the United States, for grant of the remedy sought would force abandonment of a portion of a project authorized and financed by Congress, and would prevent fulfillment of contracts between the United States and local Water Utility Districts. Damages were recoverable in a suit under the Tucker Act. 28 U.S.C. § 1346.
917 337 U.S. at 703-704. Justice Frankfurter, dissenting, would have applied the rule of the Lee case. See Pub. L. 94-574, 1, 90 Stat. 2721 (1976), amending 5 U.S.C. § 702 (action seeking relief, except for money damages, against officer, employee, or agency not to be dismissed as action against United States).
Suits against officers involving the doctrine of sovereign immunity have been classified by Justice Frankfurter in a dissenting opinion into four general groups. First, there are those cases in which the plaintiff seeks an interest in property which belongs to the Government or calls for an assertion of what is unquestionably official authority.918 Such suits, of course, cannot be maintained.919 Second, cases in which action adverse to the interests of a plaintiff is taken under an unconstitutional statute or one alleged to be so. In general these suits are maintainable.920 Third, cases involving injury to a plaintiff because the official has exceeded his statutory authority. In general these suits are maintainable.921 Fourth, cases in which an officer seeks immunity behind statutory authority or some other sovereign command for the commission of a common law tort.922 This category of cases presents the greatest difficulties since these suits can as readily be classified as falling into the first group if the action directly or indirectly is one for specific performance or if the judgment would affect the United States.
918 Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 709-710 (1949).
919 Oregon v. Hitchcock, 202 U.S. 60 (1906); Louisiana v. McAdoo, 234 U.S. 627 (1914); Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335 (1918). See also Belknap v. Schild, 161 U.S. 10 (1896); International Postal Supply Co. v. Bruce, 194 U.S. 601 (1904).
920 Rickert Rice Mills v. Fontenot, 297 U.S. 110 (1936); Tennessee Power Co. v. TVA, 306 U.S. 118 (1939) (holding that one threatened with direct and special injury by the act of an agent of the Government under a statute may challenge the constitutionality of the statute in a suit against the agent).
921 Philadelphia Co. v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605 (1912); Waite v. Macy, 246 U.S. 606 (1918).
922 United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196 (1882); Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U.S. 536 (1926); Ickes v. Fox, 300 U.S. 82 (1937); Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731 (1947). See also Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564 (1959); Howard v. Lyons, 360 U.S. 593 (1959). An emerging variant is the constitutional tort case, which springs from Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), and which involves different standards of immunity for officers. Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978); Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).
Suits Against Government Corporations.—The multiplication of government corporations during periods of war and depression has provided one motivation for limiting the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In Keifer & Keifer v. RFC,923 the Court held that the Government does not become a conduit of its immunity in suits against its agents or instrumentalities merely because they do its work. Nor does the creation of a government corporation confer upon it legal immunity. Whether Congress endows a public corporation with governmental immunity in a specific instance is a matter of ascertaining the congressional will. Moreover, it has been held that waivers of governmental immunity in the case of federal instrumentalities and corporations should be construed liberally.924 On the other hand, Indian nations are exempt from suit without further congressional authorization; it is as though their former immunity as sovereigns passed to the United States for their benefit, as did their tribal properties.925
923 306 U.S. 381 (1939).
924 FHA v. Burr, 309 U.S. 242 (1940). Nonetheless, the Court held that a congressional waiver of immunity in the case of a governmental corporation did not mean that funds or property of the United States can be levied on to pay a judgment obtained against such a corporation as the result of waiver of immunity.
Last modified: June 9, 2014