Ex Parte Young

EX PARTE YOUNG, 209 U.S. 123 (1908).

The legislature of the State of Minnesota enacted a law reducing the rates which could be charged by railroads and providing criminal penalties for violation of the act. Shareholders of nine railroads filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota which alleged, among other things, that the rate reductions unconstitutionally deprived them of property without due process of law and in violation of the equal protection of the laws. The district court issued a preliminary injunction against Minnesota Attorney General Young, prohibiting him “from taking or instituting any action or proceeding to enforce the penalties and remedies specified within the act … or to compel obedience to that act, or compliance therewith, or any part thereof.” 209 U.S. at 132.

The day after the preliminary injunction was issued, Attorney General Young, in violation of the injunction, obtained a writ of mandamus in state court that commanded a railroad company to comply with the lower rates set in the new legislation. The district court then held Young to be in contempt. Young applied to the United States Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus.

Mr. Justice Peckham delivered the opinion of the Court.

[1]The question of jurisdiction, whether of the Circuit Court or of this court, is frequently a delicate matter to deal with, and it is especially so in this case, where the material and most important objection to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court is the assertion that the suit is in effect against one of the States of the Union. It is a question, however, which we are called upon, and which it is our duty, to decide.

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[2]We conclude that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction in the case before it, because it involved the decision of Federal questions arising under the Constitution of the United States.

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[3]This inquiry necessitates an examination of the most material and important objection made to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, the objection being that the suit is, in effect, one against the State of Minnesota, and that the injunction issued against the Attorney General illegally prohibits state action, either criminal or civil, to enforce obedience to the statutes of the State. This objection is to be considered with reference to the Eleventh and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution. The Eleventh Amendment prohibits the commencement or prosecution of any suit against one of the United States by citizens of another State or citizens or subjects of any foreign State. The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall it deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

[4]The case before the Circuit Court proceeded upon the theory that the orders and acts heretofore mentioned would, if enforced, violate rights of the complainants protected by the latter Amendment. We think that whatever the rights of complainants may be, they are largely founded upon that Amendment, but a decision of this case does not require an examination or decision of the question whether its adoption in any way altered or limited the effect of the earlier Amendment. We may assume that each exists in full force, and that we must give to the Eleventh Amendment all the effect it naturally would have, without cutting it down or rendering its meaning any more narrow than the language, fairly interpreted, would warrant. It applies to a suit brought against a State by one of its own citizens as well as to a suit brought by a citizen of another State. Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1. It was adopted after the decision of this court in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), 2 Dall. 419 where it was held that a State might be sued by a citizen of another State. Since that time there have been many cases decided in this court involving the Eleventh Amendment, among them being Osborn v. United States Bank (1824), 9 Wheat. 738, 846, 857, which held that the Amendment applied only to those suits in which the State was a party on the record. In the subsequent case of Governor of Georgia v. Madrazo (1828), 26 U.S. 110, 122, 123, that holding was somewhat enlarged, and Chief Justice Marshall, delivering the opinion of the court, while citing Osborn v. United States Bank, supra, said that where the claim was made, as in the case then before the court, against the Governor of Georgia as governor, and the demand was made upon him, not personally, but officially (for moneys in the treasury of the State and for slaves in possession of the state government), the State might be considered as the party on the record (page 123), and therefore the suit could not be maintained.

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[5]The cases upon the subject were reviewed, and it was held, In re Ayers, 123 U.S. 443, that a bill in equity brought against officers of a State, who, as individuals, have no personal interest in the subject-matter of the suit, and defend only as representing the State, where the relief prayed for, if done, would constitute a performance by the State of the alleged contract of the State, was a suit against the State (page 504), following in this respect Hagood v. Southern, supra.

[6]A suit of such a nature was simply an attempt to make the State itself, through its officers, perform its alleged contract, by directing those officers to do acts which constituted such performance. The State alone had any interest in the question, and a decree in favor of plaintiff would affect the treasury of the State.

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[7]It is contended that the complainants do not complain and they care nothing about any action which Mr. Young might take or bring as an ordinary individual, but that he was complained of as an officer, to whose discretion is confided the use of the name of the State of Minnesota so far as litigation is concerned, and that when or how he shall use it is a matter resting in his discretion and cannot be controlled by any court.

[8]The answer to all this is the same as made in every case where an official claims to be acting under the authority of the State. The act to be enforced is alleged to be unconstitutional, and if it be so, the use of the name of the State to enforce an unconstitutional act to the injury of complainants is a proceeding without the authority of and one which does not affect the State in its sovereign or governmental capacity. It is simply an illegal act upon the part of a state official in attempting by the use of the name of the State to enforce a legislative enactment which is void because unconstitutional. If the act which the state Attorney General seeks to enforce be a violation of the Federal Constitution, the officer in proceeding under such enactment comes into conflict with the superior authority of that Constitution, and he is in that case stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct. The State has no power to impart to him any immunity from responsibility to the supreme authority of the United States. See In re Ayers, supra, page 507. It would be an injury to complainant to harass it with a multiplicity of suits or litigation generally in an endeavor to enforce penalties under an unconstitutional enactment, and to prevent it ought to be within the jurisdiction of a court of equity. If the question of unconstitutionality with reference, at least, to the Federal Constitution be first raised in a Federal court that court, as we think is shown by the authorities cited hereafter, has the right to decide it to the exclusion of all other courts.

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Mr. Justice Harlan, dissenting.

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[9]Let it be observed that the suit instituted by Perkins and Shepard in the Circuit Court of the United States was, as to the defendant Young, one against him as, and only because he was, Attorney General of Minnesota. No relief was sought against him individually but only in his capacity as Attorney General. And the manifest, indeed the avowed and admitted, object of seeking such relief was to tie the hands of the State so that it could not in any manner or by any mode of proceeding, in its own courts, test the validity of the statutes and orders in question. It would therefore seem clear that within the true meaning of the Eleventh Amendment the suit brought in the Federal court was one, in legal effect, against the State—as much so as if the State had been formally named on the record as a party—and therefore it was a suit to which, under the Amendment, so far as the State or its Attorney General was concerned, the judicial power of the United States did not and could not extend. If this proposition be sound it will follow—indeed, it is conceded that if, so far as relief is sought against the Attorney General of Minnesota, this be a suit against the State—then the order of the Federal court enjoining that officer from taking any action, suit, step or proceeding to compel the railway company to obey the Minnesota statute was beyond the jurisdiction of that court and wholly void; in which case, that officer was at liberty to proceed in the discharge of his official duties as defined by the laws of the State, and the order adjudging him to be in contempt for bringing the mandamus proceeding in the state court was a nullity.

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Notes on Ex Parte Young

  1. How does the Court in Ex Parte Young resolve the question of whether the State’s Eleventh Amendment immunity bars an action in federal court alleging that the State violated the Fourteenth Amendment? Under the Young rationale, would Attorney General Young’s conduct constitute state action under the Fourteenth Amendment? Action “under color of law” within the meaning of Section 1983?
  2. Did Attorney General Young have any personal interest in the subject matter of the suit? Could the State of Minnesota evade the injunction by replacing Young with a new Attorney General?
  3. How does the Court distinguish Young from Governor of Georgia v. Madrazo, 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 110 (1828) and In re Ayers, 123 U.S. 443 (1887)? What factors are relevant to determine whether a suit against a state official is in fact a suit against the State barred by the Eleventh Amendment?
  4. Would the holding of the Court in Young have been different if the State of Minnesota rather than Attorney General Young had been named as the defendant? Compare State of Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781 (1978) with Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 692-93 (1978). See Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 58 (1996) (“[W]e have often made it clear that the relief sought by a plaintiff suing a State is irrelevant to the question whether the suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment…. The Eleventh Amendment does not exist solely in order to ‘preven[t] federal-court judgments that must be paid out of a State’s treasury’; it also serves to avoid ‘the indignity of subjecting a State to the coercive process of judicial tribunals at the instance of private parties.’”).
  5. In Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984), the Court held that the Eleventh Amendment bars a federal court action for prospective injunctive relief against a state official alleged to have violated state, as opposed to federal law.

    [T]he injunction in Young was justified … on the view that sovereign immunity does not apply because an official who acts unconstitutionally is “stripped of his official or representative character. Our decisions have repeatedly emphasized that the Young doctrine rests on the need to promote the vindication of federal rights.

    The Court also has recognized, however, that the need to promote the supremacy of federal law must be accommodated to the constitutional immunity of the States…. This need to reconcile competing interests is wholly absent, however, when a plaintiff alleges that a state official has violated state law. In such a case, the entire basis for the doctrine of Young … disappears. A federal court’s grant of relief against state officials on the basis of state law, whether retroactive or prospective, does not vindicate the supreme authority of federal law. On the contrary, it is difficult to think of a greater intrusion on state sovereignty than when a federal court instructs state officials on how to conform their conduct to state law. Such a result conflicts with the principles of federalism that underlie the Eleventh Amendment. We conclude that Young … [is] inapplicable in a suit against state officials on the basis of state law.

    Halderman, 465 U.S. at 105-106.

    The Court rejected the court of appeals’ ruling that it was permitted to issue an injunction against state officials to restrain violations of state law under the federal court’s pendent (now supplemental) jurisdiction:

    [P]endent jurisdiction is a judge-made doctrine of expediency and efficiency derived from the general Art. III language conferring power to hear all “cases” arising under federal law or between diverse parties. The Eleventh Amendment should not be construed to apply with less force to this implied form of jurisdiction than it does to the explicitly granted power to hear federal claims.

    Halderman, 465 U.S. at 121.

  6. While the text of the Eleventh Amendment does not extend to suits against a State by a citizen of that State, a majority of the Supreme Court has construed the amendment to apply to such actions:

    Although the text of the Amendment would appear to restrict only the Article III diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts, “we have understood the Eleventh Amendment to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition … which it confirms.” That presupposition, first observed over a century ago in Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890) has two parts: first, that each state is a sovereign entity in our federal system; and second, that “‘[i]t is inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable to the suit of an individual without its consent.’” Id. at 13 (emphasis deleted), quoting The Federalist No. 81, p. 487 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton). See also Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, supra, at 146 (“The Amendment is rooted in a recognition that the States, although a union, maintain certain attributes of sovereignty, including sovereign immunity”). For over a century, we have reaffirmed that federal jurisdiction over suits against unconsenting States “was not contemplated by the Constitution when establishing the judicial power of the United States.” Hans, supra, at 15.

    Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996). For a competing view that a suit against a State by a citizen of that State is not barred by the Eleventh Amendment, see Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 97-99 (2000) (Stevens, J. dissenting); Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S at 101-168 (Souter, J. dissenting); Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 247-302 (Brennan, J. dissenting).


Ex Parte Young Copyright © by Gary S. Gildin. All Rights Reserved.

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