Alden v. Maine

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Alden v. Maine
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 31, 1999
Decided June 23, 1999
Full case nameAlden et al. v. Maine
Citations527 U.S. 706 (more)
119 S. Ct. 2240; 144 L. Ed. 2d 636
Case history
PriorCertiorari to the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine
Article I of the United States Constitution does not provide Congress with the ability to subject nonconsenting states to private suits for damages in its own courts.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityKennedy, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas
DissentSouter, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer
Laws applied
U.S. Const. arts. I, § 8, III, § 2
U.S. Const. amend. XI

Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States about whether the United States Congress may use its Article One powers to abrogate a state's sovereign immunity from suits in its own courts, thereby allowing citizens to sue a state in state court without the state's consent.


In 1992, probation officers employed by the State of Maine filed a suit against their employer in United States District Court for the District of Maine. The probation officers alleged violations of the overtime provisions laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal statute, and requested liquidated damages and compensation. The federal court dismissed the suit, stating that the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution gives the states sovereign immunity from suit in federal court. After the dismissal, the probation officers filed the same action in Maine state court. The state court also dismissed the case based on sovereign immunity. The case was then appealed to the Maine appellate courts, and then to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

In a 5–4 ruling, the Court concluded that Article I of the United States Constitution does not provide Congress with the ability to subject nonconsenting states to private suits for damages in its own courts. In addition, the Court held that Maine was not a consenting party in the suit, and, therefore, the ruling of the Supreme Court of Maine was upheld. Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the United States Constitution provides immunity for nonconsenting states from suits filed by citizens of that state or citizens of any other state, noting that such immunity is often referred to as "Eleventh Amendment Immunity". Such immunity, the Court continued, is necessary to maintain the state sovereignty that lies at the heart of federalism. However, according to Alden v. Maine, "sovereign immunity derives not from the Eleventh Amendment but from the federal structure of the original Constitution itself."

After discussing the Eleventh Amendment, the Court turned to the question of whether Congress has the authority, under Article I of the United States Constitution, to subject nonconsenting states to private suits in their own courts. The majority ruled that Congress has no such authority, under the original unamended Constitution, to abrogate states' sovereign immunity:

Nor can we conclude that the specific Article I powers delegated to Congress necessarily include, by virtue of the Necessary and Proper Clause or otherwise, the incidental authority to subject the States to private suits as a means of achieving objectives otherwise within the scope of the enumerated powers.

However, Congress may abrogate sovereign immunity when the suit is to enforce a statute protecting Fourteenth Amendment rights:

We have held also that in adopting the Fourteenth Amendment, the people required the States to surrender a portion of the sovereignty that had been preserved...Congress may authorize private suits against nonconsenting States pursuant to its §5 enforcement power...When Congress enacts appropriate legislation to enforce this Amendment, see City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), federal interests are paramount

The majority stated that the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution only applies to pieces of legislation that fit within its design. Therefore, any law passed by Congress pursuant to Article I that seeks to subject states to suit would violate the original, unamended Constitution. However, Congress may abrogate state sovereign immunity when it passes legislation to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. See, for example, Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer (1976).


Justice David Souter's dissent argued that the concept of sovereign immunity had been misapplied by the majority. Souter continued by noting that the idea of sovereign immunity was unclear during the period of the Constitution's ratification. In addition, he argued, the Framers would certainly have not expected the idea to remain static over numerous years. In addition, Souter argued that the FLSA was national in scope and, as a result, did not violate the principle of federalism as argued by the majority. Souter also argued that the claim the FLSA was unconstitutional was spurious. Such thinking, he argued, could only be reached based upon the misguided notion of sovereign immunity and notion of federalism the majority had used in reaching its decision.

So there is much irony in the Court's profession that it grounds its opinion on a deeply rooted historical tradition of sovereign immunity, when the Court abandons a principle nearly as inveterate, and much closer to the hearts of the Framers: that where there is a right, there must be a remedy. Lord Chief Justice Holt could state this as an unquestioned proposition already in 1702, as he did in Ashby v. White, 6 Mod. 45, 53-54, 87 Eng. Rep. 808, 815 (K.B.):

"If an Act of Parliament be made for the benefit of any person, and he is hindered by another of that benefit, by necessary consequence of law he shall have an action; and the current of all the books is so." Ibid. (citation omitted).[1]

Blackstone considered it "a general and indisputable rule, that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy, by suit or action at law, whenever that right is invaded." 3 Blackstone *23. The generation of the Framers thought the principle so crucial that several States put it into their constitutions.[2] And when Chief Justice Marshall asked about Marbury, "If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?," Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 162 (1803), the question was rhetorical, and the answer clear:

"The very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, whenever he receives an injury. One of the first duties of government is to afford that protection. In Great Britain the king himself is sued in the respectful form of a petition, and he never fails to comply with the judgment of his court." Id., at 163.

Yet today the Court has no qualms about saying frankly that the federal right to damages afforded by Congress under the FLSA cannot create a concomitant private remedy.


The Court has swung back and forth with regrettable disruption on the enforceability of the FLSA against the States, but if the present majority had a defensible position one could at least accept its decision with an expectation of stability ahead. As it is, any such expectation would be naive. The resemblance of today's state sovereign immunity to the Lochner era's industrial due process is striking. The Court began this century by imputing immutable constitutional status to a conception of economic self-reliance that was never true to industrial life and grew insistently fictional with the years, and the Court has chosen to close the century by conferring like status on a conception of state sovereign immunity that is true neither to history nor to the structure of the Constitution. I expect the Court's late essay into immunity doctrine will prove the equal of its earlier experiment in laissez-faire, the one being as unrealistic as the other, as indefensible, and probably as fleeting.


Alden represents an extension of the Court's 1996 ruling in Seminole Tribe v. Florida, which had held that Congress cannot use its powers under Article I of the Constitution to subject unconsenting states to suit in federal court. Alden holds that Congress cannot use its Article I powers to subject unconsenting states to suit in state court. Later, in Central Virginia Community College v. Katz (2006), the Court would narrow the scope of its previous sovereign immunity rulings, and hold that Congress could use the Bankruptcy Clause of Article I to abrogate state sovereign immunity.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chemerinsky, Erwin (1999), "The Hypocrisy of Alden v. Maine: Judicial Review, Sovereign Immunity and the Rehnquist Court" (PDF), Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, 33 (4): 1283–1308
  • Marshall, William P.; Cowart, Jason S. (1999), "State Immunity, Political Accountability, and Alden v. Maine", Notre Dame Law Review, 75: 1069
  • Young, Ernest A. (1999), "Alden v. Maine and the Jurisprudence of Structure", William & Mary Law Review, 41: 1601


  1. ^ The principle is even older with respect to rights created by statute, like the FLSA rights here, than it is for common-law damages. Lord Holt in fact argued that the well-established principle in the context of statutory rights applied to common law rights as well. See Ashby v. White, 6 Mod., at 54, 87 Eng. Rep., at 816 ("Now if this be so in case of an Act of Parliament, why shall not common law be so too? For sure the common law is as forcible as any Act of Parliament"). A still older formulation of the statutory right appears in a note in Coke's Reports: "[W]hen any thing is prohibited by an Act, although that the Act doth not give an action, yet action lieth upon it." 12 Co. Rep. 100. Coke's Institutes yield a similar statement: "When any act doth prohibit any wrong or vexation, though no action be particularly named in the act, yet the party grieved shall have an action grounded upon this statute." 1 E. Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 117 (1797) (reprinted in 5B 2d Historical Writings in Law and Jurisprudence (1986)). In our case, of course, the statute expressly gives an action.
  2. ^ See, e.g., A Declaration of Rights and Fundamental Rules of the Delaware State § 12 (1776), 2 Sources and Documents of United States Constitutions, at 197, 198; Md. Const. Art. XVII (1776), 4 id., at 372, 373; Mass. Const. Art. XI, (1780), 5 id., at 92, 94; Ky. Const. Art. XII, cl. 13 (1792), 4 id., at 142, 150; Tenn. Const. Art. XI, § 7 (1796), 9 id., at 141, 148.

External links[edit]