Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dallas (2 U.S.) 419 (1793)

Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dallas (2 U.S.) 419 (1793)

Facts—A South Carolina citizen who was the executor of the estate of a merchant who had sold goods during the Revolutionary War to Georgia, for which he had not been compensated, brought suit against the state. Georgia refused to appear in court, claiming that it possessed the power of sovereign immunity.

Question—Can a state be sued in federal courts without its consent?


Reasons—(4–1). Seriatim opinion.

J. Iredell, dissenting, looked to English precedents under which a sovereign could not be sued without the sovereign’s consent. Although on the surface Article III might appear to invest the courts with jurisdiction, such jurisdiction can apply “only to such controversies in which a State can be a party.” States, like other sovereigns, can be persuaded, but not compelled, to come to court. Moreover, even if the Constitution vested authority for such suits, such authority would not be effective in the absence of congressional legislation, which is not present in this case.

J. Blair argued that the U.S. Constitution should be “the only fountain” from which the Court should draw in settling this issue. Article III specifically permits a suit between a state and citizens of another state and does not distinguish cases in which a state is a defendant from those in which it is a plaintiff: “when a State, by adopting the Constitution, has agreed to be amenable to the judicial power of the United States, she has, in that respect, given up her right of sovereignty.”

J. Wilson noted that the U.S. Constitution does not specifically use the word “sovereign.” States are artificial persons who, like other persons, should be held accountable. Residents of the United States “are citizens” not “subjects.” “Supreme Power resides in the body of the people,” and, for purposes of the Union, Georgia can no longer claim its sovereignty. The poorest peasant is equal to the king. The U.S. Constitution not only could have vested jurisdiction over the state of Georgia, but it has actually done so. Having such jurisdiction, it may exercise it.

J. Cushing noted that the letter of Article III vests jurisdiction in the federal courts between states and citizens of other states. Such jurisdiction is necessary to protect the “rights of individuals.” “If the Constitution is found inconvenient in practice in this or any other particular, it is well that a regular mode is pointed out for amendment.”

C.J. Jay argued that sovereignty passed directly from the English monarch to the people of the United States. Both “the design” and “the letter and express declaration” of the Constitution vest sovereignty in federal courts in this case. Such a policy is “wise,” “honest,” and “useful,” obviating “occasions of quarrels between States on account of the claims of their respective citizens.”

Note—The Eleventh Amendment subsequently overturned this decision.

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