Monday, May 13, 2019
SCOTUS Holds States Immune from Private Suits in Other States' Courts
The Supreme Court ruled today in Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt that states enjoy sovereign immunity from private suits in the courts of other states. The sharply divided ruling (5-4, along conventional ideological lines) overruled Nevada v. Hall and significantly extends state sovereign immunity.
The ruling means that states now cannot be sued by private parties in the courts of other states. It's a boon for the states--and a blow to anyone who wants to sue a state in another state's courts--although, as Justice Breyer noted in dissent, states routinely granted immunity to sister states, anyway--but as a matter of comity. Today's ruling constitutionalizes that practice.
The Court's opinion looks to "our constitutional structure" and the "historical evidence showing a widespread preratification understanding that States retained immunity from private suits, both in their own courts and in other courts." It is devoid of textual support--a curiosity, given the majority justices' otherwise focus on text and originalism as principal sources of constitutional construction.
Justice Thomas wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas wrote that "Hall's determination that the Constitution does not contemplate sovereign immunity for each State in a sister State's courts misreads the historical record and misapprehends the 'implicit ordering of relationships within the federal system necessary to make the Constitution a workable governing charter and to give each provision within that document the full effect intended by the Framers.'" He said that "[i]n short, at the time of the founding, it was well settled that States were immune under both the common law and the law of nations," and that "[t]he founding generation thus took as given that States could not be haled involuntarily before each other's courts." He wrote that the Eleventh Amendment (though not directly applicable to this issue) reaffirmed the earlier understanding that States enjoy immunity.
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor. Justice Breyer noted that preratification immunity of states was based on comity (that is, grace), not on legal obligation, and that states therefore could withdraw their recognition of another state's immunity "upon notice at any time, without just offense" (Quoting Justice Story in The Santissima Trinidad.) He wrote that Hall correctly concluded that ratification of the Constitution did not alter this comity-based immunity "in any relevant respect." Neither the Eleventh Amendment nor the Full Faith and Credit Clause (nor anything else in the text) required states to grant each other sovereign immunity, and "nothing 'implicit in the Constitution' treats States differently in respect to immunity than international law treats sovereign nations."
At any rate, I can find nothing in the 'plan of the Convention' or elsewhere to suggest that the Constitution converted what had been the customary practice of extending immunity by consent into an absolute federal requirement that no State could withdraw. None of the majority's arguments indicates that the Constitution accomplishes any such transformation.
Justice Breyer also argued that "stare decisis requires us to follow Hall, not overrule it."