Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999)

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ALDEN et al. v. MAINE

certiorari to the supreme judicial court of maine

No. 98-436. Argued March 31, 1999—Decided June 23, 1999

After this Court decided, in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U. S.

44, that Congress lacks power under Article I to abrogate the States' sovereign immunity in federal court, the Federal District Court dismissed a Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 suit filed by petitioners against their employer, respondent Maine. Subsequently, petitioners filed the same action in state court. Although the FLSA purports to authorize private actions against States in their own courts, the trial court dismissed the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.


1. The Constitution's structure and history and this Court's authoritative interpretations make clear that the States' immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty they enjoyed before the Constitution's ratification and retain today except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments. Under the federal system established by the Constitution, the States retain a "residuary and inviolable sovereignty." The Federalist No. 39, p. 245. They are not relegated to the role of mere provinces or political corporations, but retain the dignity, though not the full authority, of sovereignty. The founding generation considered immunity from private suits central to this dignity. The doctrine that a sovereign could not be sued without its consent was universal in the States when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. In addition, the leading advocates of the Constitution gave explicit assurances during the ratification debates that the Constitution would not strip States of sovereign immunity. This was also the understanding of those state conventions that addressed state sovereign immunity in their ratification documents. When, just five years after the Constitution's adoption, this Court held that Article III authorized a private citizen of another State to sue Georgia without its consent, Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, the Eleventh Amendment was ratified. An examination of Chisholm indicates that the case, not the Amendment, deviated from the original understanding, which was to preserve States' traditional immunity from suit. The Amendment's text and history also suggest that Congress acted not to change but to restore the original constitutional design. Finally, the swiftness and near unanimity with which the Amendment was adopted indicate that

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