Probation officers sued the state of Maine in state court over alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Congress cannot pass laws that subject nonconsenting states to private suits in state courts. The provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act providing for private suits against states in state courts were unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs, a group of probation officers, sued the state of Maine in state court. The plaintiffs alleged that the state had violated overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Does Article I give Congress the power to subject nonconsenting states to private suits in state courts?
No, Article I does not give Congress the power to subject nonconsenting states to private suits in state courts.
Justice Souter argued that the Supreme Court’s opinion in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority established that federal laws enacted under the Commerce Clause may bind the states without having to satisfy a test of undue incursion into state sovereignty. He also argued that the Supreme Court’s opinions in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida and in the present case weakened the government’s ability to protect private rights
The Supreme Court found that the historical record of the events preceding the ratifiction of the Constitution showed that the American people accepted the English doctrine that sovereigns could not be sued without their consent. The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the historical record only provided guidance on states’ immunity in federal court. According to the Supreme Court, the historical record was silent on state immunity in state court because no one at the time even suggested the Constitution might strip the states of their immunity. The Supreme Court also found that congressional practice supported this holding, because the provisions at issue here were among the first laws expressly subjecting nonconsenting states to private suit. The structure of the Constitution was also inconsistent with these provisions, according to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court went on to explain the principles underlying the need to protect nonconsenting states from private suits, including the states’ financial integrity. The Supreme Court also listed several ways in which state sovereign immunity is limited: states can be sued when they consent, the federal government can seek states’ voluntary consent to private suits, and lesser entities such as state officers may be sued in certain situations.