ArtIII.S2.C1.15.3 Suits Against States

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

Controversies to which the United States is a party include suits brought by the federal government as plaintiff against states as party defendants.1 The first Supreme Court case involving the federal government suing a state arose from a late-Nineteenth Century action by the United States to recover on bonds issued by North Carolina.2 While the parties did not raise the question of federal court jurisdiction over the suit, the Court, in deciding the case on its merits in favor of the state, tacitly assumed that it had jurisdiction to hear such cases.

Two years later, the State of Texas directly challenged the federal courts’ jurisdiction over it in response to a bill in equity the United States brought to determine the boundary between Texas and the Territory of Oklahoma.3 Texas, among other things, contended that the United States could not sue a state without the state’s consent. The Supreme Court held that it had jurisdiction over the suit. Emphasizing that under Article III federal jurisdiction encompasses cases to which the United States and a state are parties, Justice John Marshall Harlan noted that the Constitution made no exception for suits brought by the United States.4 With respect to the state’s argument that it had not consented to the suit, the Court concluded that Texas had given consent to be sued by the United States “when [it was] admitted to the Union upon an equal footing in all respects with the other States.” 5

The Supreme Court routinely accepted jurisdiction over suits by the federal government against states in subsequent cases. In 1926, the Court decided a dispute between the United States and Minnesota over land patents that the United States had issued to Minnesota in breach of U.S. trust obligations to the Chippewa tribe.6 Similarly, in a 1931 case, the Court took 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.7 In 1947, the Court exercised jurisdiction over a suit the United States brought against California to determine ownership of and paramount rights over submerged land and the oil and gas thereunder off the coast of California between the low-water mark and the three-mile limit.8 The Court decided like suits against Louisiana and Texas in 1950.9

In contrast to the foregoing cases, in the 1935 case United States v. West Virginia, the Court dismissed a suit in equity brought by the United States to determine the navigability of the New and Kanawha Rivers.10 While the Court stated that it “can no longer be doubted” that the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction “includes cases brought by the United States against a state,” 11 it concluded that the case before it was not justiciable because it presented “no actual or threatened interference with the authority of the United States.” 12 West Virginia thus does not appear to cast doubt on the authority of the United States to sue a state in federal court. Instead, it instructs that such suits remain subject to generally applicable justiciability requirements.13

In addition to allowing the United States to initiate suits against the states, the Court has also, at times, allowed the federal government to intervene in suits between states.14

The Eleventh Amendment and the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity bar suits against states by private individuals and by other states; however, those authorities do not bar suits against states by the federal government. See U.S. Const. amend. XI; see also Amdt11.1 Overview of the Eleventh Amendment to Amdt11.6.4 Tort Actions Against State Officials. back
United States v. North Carolina, 136 U.S. 211 (1890). back
United States v. Texas, 143 U.S. 621 (1892). back
Id. at 644. For additional discussion of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, see ArtIII.S2.C2.2 Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction. back
Id. at 642–46. This suit was specifically authorized by the Act of Congress of May 2, 1890, providing for a temporary government for the Oklahoma territory to determine ownership of Greer County. 26 Stat. 81, 92, § 25. See also United States v. Louisiana, 339 U.S. 699, 701–02 (1950). back
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). back
United States v. Utah, 283 U.S. 64 (1931). back
United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19 (1947). back
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). back
295 U.S. 463 (1935). back
Id. at 470. back
Id. at 473. back
For discussion of the various constitutional requirements related to justiciability, see generally Article III. back
See Oklahoma v. Texas, 252 U.S. 372 (1920); Id. 258 U.S. 574, 581 (1922); Florida v. Georgia, 58 U.S. 478, 495 (1854). back