Edelman v. Jordan

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Edelman v. Jordan
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued December 12, 1973
Decided March 25, 1974
Full case name Joel Edelman, Director, Department of Public Aid of Illinois v. John Jordan
Citations 415 U.S. 651 (more)
94 S. Ct. 1347; 39 L. Ed. 2d 662; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 115
Prior history Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
The Court held that, because of the sovereign immunity recognized in the Eleventh Amendment, a federal court could not order a State to pay back funds unconstitutionally withheld from parties to whom they were due.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by Burger, Stewart, White, Powell
Dissent Douglas
Dissent Brennan
Dissent Marshall, joined by Blackmun
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XI

Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974),[1] was a United States Supreme Court case that held that, because of the sovereign immunity recognized in the Eleventh Amendment, a federal court could not order a State to pay back funds unconstitutionally withheld from parties to whom they were due.


The Plaintiff, John Jordan, in a class action suit, sued Illinois officials who administered federal-state of Aid to the Aged, Blind, or Disabled (AABD). Jordan alleged that the program monies had been administered in a way that violated both federal laws and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, Jordan claimed that the Illinois administrators were applying their own guidelines which ignored federally mandated time limits, thereby not getting aid to applicants fast enough. The federal law required that applicants who qualify receive aid within 30 or 45 days, depending on their condition, but the Illinois agency was taking up to four months to disburse aid - and when such aid was distributed, it was not paid retroactively to the time when the state should have started paying it according to the federal guidelines.

Jordan sought relief including a positive injunction to require the State to award him and others in his position the aid that they had missed because of the lateness in processing the applications. The United States District Court found the Illinois guidelines to be inconsistent with the federal statute, and ordered Illinois to follow the federal guidelines, and to release to the aid applicants all funds "wrongfully withheld". The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court, with agency director Joel Edelmen named as the party representing the state of Illinois.


Since the 1890 decision in Hans v. Louisiana, the Eleventh Amendment had been held to recognize the sovereign immunity of states from suits by their citizens. However, the 1908 case of Ex parte Young had allowed an exception, that citizens could seek injunctive relief against state officials to stop them from carrying out unconstitutional state policies.

In this case, the Supreme Court would have to examine whether a federal court can require a state to restore money wrongfully withheld from citizens by the state, if the order to restore the funds is in the form of an injunction requiring the state to stop its wrongful possession of those funds.


The Court, in an opinion by then-Justice Rehnquist concluded that private litigants could not avoid the bar of state sovereign immunity by manipulating the doctrine of Ex parte Young. No case examining state sovereign immunity had held that states could be required to repay funds that had wrongfully been withheld. In almost all those cases that had permitted retrospective recovery against the States, the State had not raised the issue of state sovereign immunity; the Court additionally overruled any cases in which the State had raised the issue and lost.

The Court distinguished the payment that had been ordered in this case from expenses that a State might incidentally incur after an injunction is issued in order to comply; the costs of post-judgment compliance are ancillary, whereas the costs of making up for pre-judgment non-compliance were more like an award of damages to the plaintiff. Noting that there were no precedents squarely on point, the Court expressed disapproval of those precedents that hinted at allowing restoration of funds previously withheld.

The Court also brushed aside an alternative theory raised by the Court of Appeals, that Illinois had waived its immunity by participating in this federal program. Previous cases finding such a waiver had involved express language in the Congressional statute conditioning program funds on such a waiver - but in this statute, there was no such language. The Court refused to find that participation in the program constituted "constructive consent", instead declaring that consent to waive immunity from suit would only be found "by the most express language or by such overwhelming implications from the text as will leave no room for any other reasonable construction."

The majority also rejected Justice Marshall's suggestion that plaintiffs could recover under the civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, noting that nothing in that statute suggested that Congress had intended to abrogate state sovereign immunity through its passage. Finally, the Court found that it was not improper to consider the state sovereign immunity issue even though the state had not raised it in the trial court, because the state sovereign immunity is a jurisdictional bar, which may be raised at any time.


Justice Douglas, Justice Brennan, and Justice Marshall each dissented from the opinion of the Court.

Dissent of Justice Douglas[edit]

Justice Douglas asserted that there should be no distinction made between prospective relief and retrospective relief, as the drain on the state's treasury is the same in either case. He also strongly contended that Illinois had waived its immunity by entering the federal program, because the Court had recently found other states to have waived immunity by joining similar programs. Therefore, Douglas reasoned that Illinois had to have been aware of the possibility that entering the program would waive its own immunity, and its decision to participate in light of that danger showed a willingness to be held liable.

Dissent of Justice Marshall[edit]

Justice Marshall argued that 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which permits parties to sue state actors to recover for civil rights violations, also abrogated the immunity of the states, permitting a recovery from the state treasury where the rights of a citizen have been violated by an official of the state.

Dissent of Justice Brennan[edit]

Justice Brennan's opinion did not reach any of the questions on the limitations of sovereign immunity, or waiver thereof, that were considered by both the Court and the other dissents. Instead, Brennan argued that the Eleventh Amendment does not immunize states from being sued by their citizens at all. His position is that there is no question of what the purported immunity covers, or whether it can be waived, because there is no immunity. He notes that the Eleventh Amendment, by its language, only bars suits against a state by citizens of other states. This leaves common law sovereign immunity, which Brennan asserts was surrendered by the states at the time they agreed to join into the United States.

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