Monday, March 23, 2020
The Supreme Court ruled today in Allen v. Cooper that North Carolina enjoyed Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity against a claim under the federal Copyright Remedy Clarification Act. The Court held that in enacting the CRCA Congress did not validly abrogate the state's sovereign immunity.
The ruling is a victory for North Carolina and other states who seek to avoid CRCA liability for copyright violations. More generally, it's a victory for states' sovereign immunity. At the same time, it continues a line of cases that restrict congressional authority to abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity--and limit that power to federal acts under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment that are proportional and congruent to a constitutional problem or evil in the states that Congress seeks to address.
The case arose when videographer Frederick Allen sued North Carolina for posting some of his copyright-protected videos and pictures online. North Carolina moved to dismiss, arguing that it enjoyed sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment--and that it hadn't waived immunity, and that Congress didn't validly abrogate immunity. The Supreme Court agreed.
The Court held under College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. that Congress couldn't abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity using its Article I powers. So if Congress enacted the CRCA under the Intellectual Property Clause (in Article I), then Congress didn't validly abrogate. (The Court acknoweldged that it upheld congressional abrogation under the Bankruptcy Clause in Central Va. Community College v. Katz, but held that Katz was a good-for-one-abrogation ticket based on the unique characteristics and history of the Bankruptcy Clause.)
The Court went on to say that Congress didn't validly abrogate under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that the CRCA wasn't proportional and congruent to any constitutional evil that Congress sought to address. That's because for a state to violate the Fourteenth Amendment by infringing a copyright, it'd have to do it intentionally, and provide no state remedy for the violation. (Due Process would be the relevant clause under Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.) The Court said that Congress found no evidence of such infringements by the states--that is, no constitutional evil--and so the CRCA couldn't be proportional and congruent to that (non-)problem.
Justice Thomas concurred. He wrote separately to argue that the Court set too high a bar for stare decisis, and that the Court went too far in suggesting that Congress might in the future abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Fourteenth Amendment by actually addressing a constitutional evil.
Justice Breyer concurred, too, joined by Justice Ginsburg. He argued (consistent with his longstanding position) that "someting is amiss" with "our sovereign-immunity precedents." He said that the Court "went astray" in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, holding that Congress lacked authority under Article I to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity, and again in Florida Prepaid.