Today in 1795, the 11th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the necessary number of states.
The move came after an intensely controversial opinion in the 1793 case of Chisholm v. Georgia, where the Jay Court suggested that the states had no sovereign immunity over suits in federal court, and thus the nonattendance of Georgia was illegitimate. Only James Iredell, my favorite Supreme Court Justice in the history of the court, dissented.
The move was widely considered an act of federal judicial overreach. The state power to refuse consent to suits between it and citizens of another state, many declared, was inherent in the Constitution and widely assured by advocates of ratification.
Almost immediately, Congress devised a proposal for a new constitutional amendment that would more explicitly affirm a state’s sovereign immunity, the ability to refuse approval of the suit’s adjudication in federal court.
Ardent Federalist Caleb Strong of Massachusetts drafted the amendment. In addition, Theodore Sedgwick proposed a similar amendment in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan nature of opposition of the 11th Amendment has been widely understated, and even the Federalists viewed the Chisholm decision as an egregious offense. Within the short course of less than a year, the amendment became part of the Constitution.
Above anything, this episode demonstrates the authoritative, legitimate method to reverse absurd judicial opinions – using the authority of the states to undermine such opinions through the amendment process. Despite the story of the 11th amendment, we are often taught in the contemporary to view the states as subjugated dogs on the leash of the federal government, and that federal judges carry with them an aura of perfection, supremacy, and finality on all matters. Let this affair serve as evidence to the contrary of such assumptions.