Abrogating State Immunity
The Supreme Court has held that although the state enjoys immunity from the power of federal court, state officials are not immune from suit if the circumstances indicate that Congress intends to abrogate the state’s immunity. Congress may abrogate a state’s immunity to suit when enforcing the constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. As the Supreme Court stated, “The Eleventh Amendment and the principle of state sovereignty which it embodies are necessarily limited by the enforcement provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Court added, “Congress may, in determining what is ‘appropriate legislation’ for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, provide for private suits against states or state officials which are constitutionally impermissible in other contexts.” Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456 (1976). Federal courts can exercise jurisdiction when the state attempts to deny a civil right to a citizen, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. For this to happen, Congress must specifically intend for the statute to abrogate the state’s immunity. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332 (1979).
This power of Congress to abrogate a state’s immunity is appropriately exercised only in response to a pattern of irrational state transgressions. For example, when a state employee sued the trustees of the University of Alabama to force compliance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the suit was dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds for a number of reasons, two which were:
(1) States are not required by the Fourteenth Amendment to make special accommodations for the disabled, so long as their actions towards such individuals are rational, and
(2) The legislative record of the ADA failed to show that Congress identified a pattern of irrational state discrimination in employment against the disabled, and thus did not support abrogation of the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suits for money damages under Title I of the ADA.[Bd. of Trustees of U. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001)]
By requiring a pattern of pervasive state constitutional violations, the Supreme Court limits Congress’ ability to override the states’ sovereign immunity except when deemed necessary. Garrett concluded that the Eleventh Amendment bars private suits seeking money damages for state violations of Title I of the ADA. It left open however, the question whether the Eleventh Amendment permits suits for money damages under Title II.
The recent case Tenn. v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004) , addressed that issue, and did find the necessary pattern of irrational state discrimination. In August 1998, George Lane and Beverly Jones filed an action against the State of Tennessee and a number of Tennessee counties, alleging violations of Title II of the ADA. Both are paraplegics who use wheelchairs for mobility. They claimed that they were denied access to, and the services of, the state court system by reason of their disabilities. Lane alleged that he was compelled to appear to answer a set of criminal charges on the second floor of a county courthouse that had no elevator.
At his first appearance in court, Lane crawled up two flights of stairs to get to the courtroom. When Lane returned to the courthouse for a hearing, he refused to crawl again or to be carried by officers to the courtroom; he consequently was arrested and jailed for failure to appear. Jones, a certified court reporter, alleged that she has not been able to gain access to a number of county courthouses, and as a result had lost both work and an opportunity to participate in the judicial process. The State moved to dismiss the suit on the ground that it was barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Court held Title II of the ADA, prohibiting discrimination by a public entity, validly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity through enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, as applied to cases implicating the fundamental right of access to the courts.