Alden v. Maine
In Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999), in which the Court held that Congress could not abrogate a state's immunity from suit in the state's own courts for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a statute that, like the FAA, is based on Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause of Article I.
In doing so, the Court emphasized the independent sovereignty that states retain in our federal system. "Although the Constitution grants broad powers to Congress, our federalism requires that Congress treat the States in a manner consistent with their status as residuary sovereigns and joint participants in the governance of the Nation." Alden, 527 U.S. at 748.
It also pointed out that a congressional power to authorize suits against nonconsenting states in their own courts might well be even more offensive to state sovereignty than a power to authorize suits in a federal forum. "The immunity of a sovereign in its own courts has always been understood to be within the sole control of the sovereign itself." 527 U.S. at 749.
The Court continued:
"When the Federal Government asserts authority over a State's most fundamental political processes, it strikes at the heart of the political accountability so essential to our liberty and republican form of government.
"A State is entitled to order the processes of its own governance, assigning to the political branches, rather than the courts, the responsibility for directing the payment of debts. "
"It would be an unprecedented step to infer from the fact that Congress may declare federal law binding and enforceable in state courts the further principle that Congress' authority to pursue federal objectives through the state judiciaries exceeds not only its power to press other branches of the State into its service but even its control over the federal courts themselves." 527 U.S. at 751-753.
The Court acknowledged that the Supreme Court has "sometimes referred to the states' immunity from suit as 'Eleventh Amendment immunity,'" but that phrase, while a "convenient shorthand," is also something of a "misnomer" for "sovereign immunity of the states neither derives from, nor is limited by, the terms of the Eleventh Amendment." Id.
Expounding upon the difference, the Supreme Court wrote:
Rather, as the Constitution's structure, its history, and the authoritative interpretations by this Court make clear, the states' immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the states enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today (either literally or by virtue of their admission into the Union upon an equal footing with the other states) except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments. Id.
In Alden, the Supreme Court affirmed the applicability of the Eleventh Amendment to states and state entities sued in their own courts, holding that Article III, 1 of the United States Constitution "in no way suggests . . . that state courts may be required to assume jurisdiction that could not be vested in the federal courts and forms no part of the judicial power of the United States." Id. at 753.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, made clear that state law could abrogate the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id. at 755.