Seminole Tribe v. Florida is the 1995 Term's illustration of the importance that a narrow, but solid, five-Justice majority of the Supreme Court attaches to the constitutional underpinnings of "Our Federalism." In Seminole Tribe, this majority declared that Congress lacks authority under its Article I, Section 8 regulatory powers to subject unconsenting states to suits initiated in federal court by private persons. The very same majority had previously made clear its intention to implement the original constitutional understanding of a national government of limited powers, especially when the national government attempted to "commandeer" state legislative and administrative processes. This aversion to federal commandeering of state organs of government moved the Seminole Tribe Court to build on its decision in United States v. Lopez and further curb Congress's Commerce Clause power – this time by withdrawing federal court remedial avenues for enforcement of a federal right against an unconsenting state.
This Comment argues that, although Seminole Tribe inflates the rhetoric of "inherent state sovereignty," the majority in fact left firmly in place the fundamental reality of state accountability in federal court for violation of federal law. After a brief overview of Eleventh Amendment doctrine and a review of the statute involved and the opinions in the case, this Comment presents other, more plausible rationales that the Court could have followed in Seminole Tribe and that could have led to either affirming or reversing the court of appeals. Next, the Comment outlines why I believe that the Court chose to forgo these admittedly easier possible avenues and instead based its decision on "background postulates" of state sovereign immunity from federal court suit. Essentially, I argue that Seminole Tribe reflects the Court's desire to confront the federal-state relation question directly and to make a statement about state autonomy. Finally, I argue that, despite this symbolic statement to the contrary, little has changed after the Seminole Tribe decision because the rule of Ex parte Young remains in full force. In suits for prospective relief, states are still accountable in federal court – through their officers – for the violation of federal law. In that sense, sovereign immunity has become a rare exception to the otherwise prevailing system of state governmental accountability in federal court for violations of federal law, an exception that many, including this author, find difficult to justify.
Henry P. Monaghan,
The Sovereign Immunity Exception Comment,
Harv. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/782