Rulings Give States Broad Immunity Against Lawsuits


The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Wednesday dramatically curbed the power of Congress, shielding the states from federal laws that regulate the workplace and protect patents and trademarks.

Invoking the doctrine of “state sovereign immunity,” the justices said that these laws cannot be enforced in private lawsuits brought against states.

The four dissenters accused their colleagues of adopting a radical states’ rights philosophy that had died with the Union’s victory in the Civil War.

The court handed down three decisions that also cast doubt on federal environmental laws and civil rights measures in cases in which state agencies are the violators.


One of the rulings appears to leave 4.7 million of the nation’s state employees with no way to enforce their rights to minimum wages and overtime pay. The state of Maine had refused to pay overtime wages to a group of parole officers, as required by federal law, and the court ruled that these workers cannot sue the state over the issue.

Another pair of rulings effectively strips inventors, publishers and software makers, among others, of the right to sue state universities and other state agencies over stolen patents or, probably, copyrights.

The sweeping decisions likely will have an immediate effect on a number of patent and copyright disputes involving state universities, including a long-running patent lawsuit between Genentech Inc., the biotechnology firm based in San Francisco, and the University of California.

“Right now, there is no remedy” for someone who sues the University of California for stealing a patent, said P. Martin Simpson Jr., a lawyer for the UC system in Oakland.


In 1992, Congress passed laws to make clear that states could be sued for such violations, but the court struck down those laws Wednesday.

Some legal experts said they were stunned by the court’s action.

“This is a radical change in American government,” USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said. “It says the states can violate federal law with impunity and nowhere can they be sued for damages in a federal or state court. Imagine if a state lab dumps toxic waste into someone’s backyard in violation of the federal environmental laws. This says the homeowners cannot sue the states for their damages.”

Clearly, the justices saw the cases decided Wednesday as raising a profound question.

An Assumption of Sovereignty

Are the laws of the United States the “supreme law of the land,” binding in all 50 states, as the Constitution says? Or do the states retain a “sovereignty” that predates the Constitution and lives on today?

The court’s five conservatives adopted the latter approach.

The states have a “sovereign status” that makes them separate and independent from the national government, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said. “The states’ immunity from suit is a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty that the states enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today.”


Kennedy did not point to any passage in the Constitution that says the states are sovereign. Instead, he said, this belief was understood and accepted in 1787, when the original charter was written and ratified. The “founders’ silence is most instructive,” he said, because it shows that the sovereign status of the states was assumed.

For most of this century, Congress has not assumed that the states have such an independent status. National lawmakers have passed broad measures regulating many aspects of American life, including the workplace, the economy and the environment, and states are covered as well. For example, state employees are entitled to minimum wages and extra pay for overtime, just as are those in the private sector. Until recently, these laws have gone mostly unchallenged.

“Congress has vast power but not all power,” Kennedy said, his voice rising a note. “We reject any contention that substantive federal law by its own force necessarily overrides the sovereign immunity of the states.” His opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The four more liberal justices dissented.

“The doctrine of sovereign immunity is more in the mind of King James I than of James Madison,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. “When a state acts like a private business, it should be held accountable” under the same laws.

Justice John Paul Stevens accused the conservatives of “setting loose a mindless dragon that chews gaping holes in the law.”

Citing an example from Los Angeles, Stevens noted that the decisions create an oddity in the law. “A public school such as UCLA can sue a private school such as USC for patent infringement, yet USC cannot sue UCLA for the same act,” he wrote.

The most powerful dissent came from Justice David H. Souter, the normally reserved and soft-spoken New Englander.


His voice dripping with sarcasm, Souter said that the conservative justices had invented a notion that was not adopted in the Constitution and had expired when the Civil War ended.

“The state is not the ultimate sovereign. The national government is,” he said, looking across at Kennedy. “The majority could not be more fundamentally mistaken.” He added that the court has created “a very peculiar state of affairs” for many workers and private businesses.

In the Genentech case, the biotech firm sued the University of California over products that grew out of research involving human growth hormones. UC lawyers had appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state university should be immune from such suits. The case was put on hold until the outcome of the cases decided Wednesday, and UC lawyers now are expecting a one-line order dismissing Genentech’s claim (Regents of the University of California vs. Genentech, 98-731).

While the court ruled directly concerning federal patents and trademarks, lawyers in the publishing field expect and fear that the same principle will apply in the copyright area. If so, state universities could freely copy books, music, software and other protected works.

“This is unbelievable. Under this decision, a state can infringe a patent or a copyright and no court in the country can do anything about it,” said Charles S. Sims, a New York lawyer for the Assn. of American Publishers and the Software and Information Industry Assn.

“As a practical matter, I don’t see a remedy,” added David C. Todd, a Washington lawyer who represented a bank that was on the losing end of one of the rulings. “This means the states are beyond the reach of Congress. This is a very extreme approach.”

Opinions Close Out Current Session

The first case decided Wednesday (Alden vs. Maine, 98-436) blocked parole officers from obtaining the overtime wages they believed they were owed. The justices left open the possibility that the U.S. Labor Department could sue the state on their behalf, but other lawyers said that this is impractical and unlikely.

The other two cases arose when a private savings bank developed a popular tuition prepayment plan. Later, after several states adopted the idea, the bank sued for patent infringement and for false advertising in violation of the trademark laws. In that case (College Savings Bank vs. Florida Prepaid, 98-149) and a second companion case, the court said that the bank could not sue the state agency.

In the fall, the justices will consider whether to exempt the states from some federal civil rights laws. When several state university professors and librarians sued Florida State University for age discrimination, a federal appeals court said that the university could not be sued under the Age Discrimination Act.

Wednesday’s written opinions are the last to be handed down this term. The justices plan to meet today to issue brief orders in several dozen cases, and then will adjourn until October.