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
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.