Amendment XI provides a limited form of sovereign immunity to the state governments of the United States.1 This allows states to avoid being sued in certain instances. To understand exactly what the amendment prevents, one must break it down into its key component phrases:
"The Judicial power of the United States..."
This first phrase limits the amendment's scope to the United States federal court system and to US federal law. The judicial power of a state—i.e., that state's courts—may handle suits against the state under state law. To find out whether this is the case, you must look at that particular state's constitution and other laws.
"...any suit in law or equity..."
A "suit in law" is a suit seeking money damages. A "suit in equity" is a suit seeking an injunction or other specific action mandated by the court. Both types of claim are barred by this amendment.
"...against one of the United States..."
This seems simple enough, but it is actually very tricky. While a state government cannot be sued, one can go to federal court to sue:
- A state official who is continually violating the plaintiff's federally-protected rights. You cannot claim money in such a suit, but you can demand an injunction against the official personally to stop them from continuing a violation of federal rights (such as civil rights and constitutional rights).
- A state employee who has personally violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. In such a case, the plaintiff can demand an injunction as well as money damages.
- A municipality, even though it is normally considered to be a mere subdivision of the state government.
- If Congress eliminated Amendment XI immunity through clear language in a civil rights statute. This exception comes from Section 5 of Amendment XIV, which expressly gives Congress power to enforce the amendment through legislation, thus superseding state sovereign immunity in Amendment XI.
- If the state waives its immunity. The waiver must be "clear and unequivocal." A state may waive its sovereign immunity in a state statute, or as a condition to accepting federal financial assistance. States may also waive their immunity by voluntarily commencing an action in a federal court.
..."by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."
This language explicitly does not cover (and thus permits federal courts to hear):
- Suits by the United States, i.e. the federal government.
- Suits by agencies of the federal government.
- Suits by other states, in which case the United States Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction to hear the case immediately.
For purposes of the Eleventh Amendment, the term "state" includes Puerto Rico
—see Jusino Mercado v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
, 214 F.3d 34, 39 (1st Cir. 2000). It does not include the District of Columbia
(see Best v. District of Columbia
, 743 F. Supp. 44, 46 (D.D.C. 1990)), Guam
(see 48 U.S.C. § 1421b(u)), the Northern Mariana Islands
(see Fleming v. Department of Public Safety
, 837 F.2d 401, 405 (9th Cir. 1988)) or the Virgin Islands
(see Davis v. Knud-Hansen Memorial Hospital
635 F.2d 179 (3d Cir. 1980)).