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Chisholm v. Georgia

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Chisholm (Plaintiff) was a citizen of South Carolina. He sued the State of Georgia (Defendant) in the United States Supreme Court to enforce a debt. Defendant refused to appear, citing sovereign immunity.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The Constitution allows a citizen of a state to bring suit against another state, even if that state has not waived sovereign immunity.

    Facts.

    During the Revolutionary War, a citizen of South Carolina named Farquhar supplied Defendant with goods. Plaintiff was the executor of Farguhar’s estate and sued in the Supreme Court to enforce the debt owed to the estate. Defendant refused to appear, claiming sovereign immunity.

    Issue.

    If a state does not waive its sovereign immunity, can it be sued by a citizen of a different state?

    Held.

    (Jay, C.J.) Yes. The Constitution allows a citizen of a state to bring suit against another state, even if that state has not waived sovereign immunity. Article III of the Constitution explicitly states that “The Judicial Power shall extend to . . . Controversies . . . between a State and Citizens of another State.” As Plaintiff is a citizen of a different state, he may bring suit against Defendant. Since the Revolution, American citizens are their own sovereigns, and they have determined that the states shall be bound by the Constitution. All the citizens are equal, so a citizen can sue a state, which is a collection of other citizens. The question of whether a citizen may sue the United States is not decided here.

    (Wilson, J.) Yes. The Constitution allows a citizen of a state to bring suit against another state, even if that state has not waived sovereign immunity. A state can bind itself to laws and the jurisdiction of courts established by those laws just like a citizen can. A state cannot assert sovereignty to avoid its obligations because the Constitution does not recognize sovereigns. The Constitution recognizes only citizens and power resides in citizens, not in states per se. In creating the Constitution, the people vested executive, legislative, and judicial powers that bind the states. The Constitution was formed to create a more perfect union than the one that previously held the states together. That previous union could not enforce its legislative power over the states, but the Constitution established executive and judicial powers in order to enforce such legislative powers. The Constitution was also created to establish justice; therefore, there must be a judicial authority that can be exercised over the states. Additionally, the Constitution clearly requires that the judicial power extend to controversies between a state and the citizens of another state.

    Dissent.

    English common law remains the basic law of the states. The states have not given up sovereignty, but have reserved it. Therefore, the states’ possess the same common law immunity from suit as found in English law. The Crown could not be sued unless it gave permission, so the states cannot be sued without their consent either.

    Discussion.

    In response to the Court’s decision in this case, the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution was passed. The Amendment gives states sovereign immunity from suits by citizens of other states and foreign nations.


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