Chisholm v. Georgia

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Chisholm v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 5, 1793
Decided February 18, 1793
Full case nameAlexander Chisholm, Executors v. Georgia
Citations2 U.S. 419 (more)
2 Dall. 419; 1 L. Ed. 440; 1793 U.S. LEXIS 249
Case history
PriorOriginal action filed, U.S. Supreme Court, August, 1792
SubsequentNone on record
Article III, Section 2's grant of federal jurisdiction over suits "between a State and Citizens of another State" abrogated the States' sovereign immunity and granted federal courts the affirmative power to hear disputes between private citizens and States.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Jay
Associate Justices
James Wilson · William Cushing
John Blair Jr. · James Iredell
Case opinions
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. III; Judiciary Act of 1789
Superseded by
U.S. Const. amend. XI

Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793), is considered the first United States Supreme Court case of significance and impact.[1] Given its date, there was little available legal precedent (particularly in U.S. law).[2] The case was superseded in 1795 by the Eleventh Amendment.

Background of the case[edit]

In 1792, in South Carolina, Alexander Chisholm, the executor of the estate of Robert Farquhar, attempted to sue the State of Georgia in the Supreme Court over payments due to him for goods that Farquhar had supplied Georgia during the American Revolutionary War. United States Attorney General Edmund Randolph argued the case for the plaintiff before the court. The defendant, Georgia, refused to appear, claiming that, as a sovereign state, it could not be sued without granting its consent to the suit.

The court’s decision[edit]

In a four-to-one decision, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, with Chief Justice John Jay and associate justices John Blair, James Wilson, and William Cushing constituting the majority; only Justice Iredell dissented. (At that time, there was no opinion of the court or majority opinion; the justices delivered their opinions seriatim, that is, individually, and in ascending order of seniority.) The court ruled that Article 3, Section 2, of the Constitution abrogated the states' sovereign immunity and granted federal courts the affirmative power to hear disputes between private citizens and states.

In the opening words of his opinion, Justice Wilson stated the essential principle on which the case turned: "This is a case of uncommon magnitude. One of the parties to it is a State; certainly respectable, claiming to be sovereign. The question to be determined is, whether this State, so respectable, and whose claim soars so high, is amenable to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States? This question, important in itself, will depend on others, more important still; and, may, perhaps, be ultimately resolved into one, no less radical than this 'do the people of the United States form a Nation?'"[2]

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Iredell stated, “A general question of great importance here occurs. What controversy of a civil nature can be maintained against a State by an individual? The framers of the Constitution, I presume, must have meant one of two things: either 1. in the conveyance of that part of the judicial power which did not relate to the execution of the other authorities of the general Government (which it must be admitted are full and discretionary, within the restrictions of the Constitution itself), to refer to antecedent laws for the construction of the general words they use; or, 2. to enable Congress in all such cases to pass all such laws as they might deem necessary and proper to carry the purposes of this Constitution into full effect, either absolutely at their discretion, or at least in cases where prior laws were deficient for such purposes, if any such deficiency existed.” Iredell stated that neither of these things was argued in the case, and reasoned that under common law each State was sovereign, just as under English law, and that they could not be sued without their consent.

Subsequent developments[edit]

Although Justice Iredell's was the only dissenting opinion, his opinion ultimately became the law of the land. The States, surprised by the decision of the Supreme Court, called for the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, which precludes a State from being sued in Federal Court without that State's consent. By February 1795, 12 of the then 15 states had ratified the 11th Amendment; South Carolina ratified it in 1797, and New Jersey and Pennsylvania took no action on ratification. In 1795, the Eleventh Amendment was ratified to negate the holding in Chisholm v. Georgia. Under the 11th Amendment, citizens of one state or of foreign countries can only sue a state with the state's consent or if Congress, pursuant to a valid exercise of Fourteenth Amendment remedial powers, abrogates the states' immunity from suit. See Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barnett, Randy E. The People or the State?: Chisholm v. Georgia and Popular Sovereignty. Virginia Law Review (2007): 1729-1758. p.1729.
  2. ^ a b Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793).


  • Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer Of A Nation, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996.
  • Jean Edward Smith, The Constitution And American Foreign Policy, St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1989.
  • William Anderson LaBach, The Supreme Court Fails Its First Test: Chisholm v. Georgia, Saarbrücken, Germany, VDM Verlag, 2009.

External links[edit]