Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority, 535 U.S. 743; 122 S. Ct. 1864; 152 L. Ed. 2d 962 (2002)

Federal Maritime Commission v. South Carolina State Ports Authority, 535 U.S. 743; 122 S. Ct. 1864; 152 L. Ed. 2d 962 (2002)

Facts—The South Carolina State Ports Authority refused permission to berth a cruise ship, which provided for gambling, at its facilities. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) brought the ship’s case to a U.S. District Court, which appointed an Administrative Law Judge to hear the case. The judge found that South Carolina was entitled to sovereign immunity. The FMC subsequently decided that the ruling applied only to judicial decisions and not those of administrative agencies. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the FMC ruling.

Question—Does state sovereign immunity preclude the Federal Maritime Commission from bringing action against South Carolina?


ReasonsJ. Thomas (5–4). “Dual sovereignty is a defining feature of our Nation’s constitutional blueprint.” The states did not surrender their immunity from private law suits. The contrary decision in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) is now recognized as erroneous and was overturned by the Eleventh Amendment. Addressing only the specific provision that led to the Chisholm decision, “the Eleventh Amendment does not define the scope of the States’ sovereign immunity; it is but one exemplification of that immunity.” Such immunity thus “extends beyond the literal text of the Eleventh Amendment.” The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the growth of administrative agencies so the Court has to ascertain whether the privilege at issue was of a type “from which the framers would have thought the States possessed immunity when they agreed to enter the Union.” Thomas found that the modern administrative hearing was “functionally comparable” to that held by a judge in a courtroom and that such proceedings are similar to judicial proceedings with rules like those in federal civil litigation. Sovereign immunity was designed to preserve state dignity, and such dignity is no more consistent with states being called before administrative bodies than before courts. Thomas further rejected argu- ments that commission proceedings are not protected by sovereignty immunity because the adjudications are not self executing or because they do not pose a threat to a state’s financial integrity. Thomas argued that sovereign immunity applied against suits, monetary or otherwise.

J. Stevens and J. Breyer authored dissents with Stevens focusing on the in- adequacy of the Court’s earlier decision in Alden v. Maine (1999). Although he also rejected the Court’s reasoning in that case, J. Souter emphasized that independent agencies were neither legislative nor judicial in nature. He further argued that the majority decision “lacks any firm anchor in the Constitution’s text,” specifically noting that the Eleventh Amendment referred only to “the judicial power of the United States.” Similarly, while the Tenth Amendment reserved nondelegated powers to the states, the Constitution specifically delegated Congress with power over interstate and foreign commerce.

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