209 U.S. 123 (1908).
One-Sentence Takeaway: The eleventh amendment does not bar an action in federal court against a state official to enjoin the enforcement of an unconstitutional statute.
Summary: A 1908 United States Supreme Court opinion on the eleventh amendment to the Constitution.
The case involved a suit filed by stockholders of a railroad company seeking to prevent the Attorney General of Minnesota from enforcing an unconstitutional state statute in violation of the fourteenth amendment. The Attorney General raised the eleventh amendment immunity defense, however the Court held that the immunity did not apply to this case.
The Court reasoned that neither a state nor its officials are empowered to enforce a statute that is unconstitutional and, therefore, a state official acting pursuant to the unconstitutional statute is stripped of his official status and may not benefit from the state’s eleventh amendment immunity. The Court explained:
[When] the act which the state Attorney General seeks to enforce [is in] 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 the responsibility to the supreme authority of the United States.
The Court held that the eleventh amendment would not bar an action in federal court against a state official to enjoin the enforcement of an unconstitutional statute.
However, the Court restricted its holding to suits seeking prospective injunctive relief, maintaining that actions for monetary damages to be paid out of state funds would continue to remain barred by the eleventh amendment. Concluding that the enjoined conduct in the case placed no burden upon the state treasury and that the conduct violated the Constitution, the Court viewed the state official as acting in an individual capacity, rather than as a representative of the state. Thus, notwithstanding the Court’s holding, the non-consenting state remained immune from suit in federal court under the eleventh amendment.