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Chisholm v. Georgia

Further Readings

An early U.S. Supreme Court case holding that Article III of the federal Constitution gives the Court original jurisdiction over lawsuits between a state government and the citizens of another state, even if the state being sued does not consent. The decision generated immediate opposition from 12 states and led to the ratification of the ELEVENTH AMENDMENT, which gives states SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY from being sued in federal court by citizens of other states without the consent of the state being sued.

In 1777, Robert Farquhar, a Charleston, South Carolina, merchant, sold goods to the Georgia army for use in the Revolutionary War. The next year Farquhar died, and in 1791, his executor, Alexander Chisholm, brought suit to collect the debt in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Georgia. Plaintiffs sought 100,000 pounds in sterling silver for payment of the debt plus interest. Notably, Associate Justice JAMES IREDELL, who later filed the famous dissenting opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Chisholm v. Georgia, heard the arguments at the district court level while discharging his duties as a traveling circuit judge (in the early days of the U.S. Supreme Court, justices performed the double duty of deciding cases for the nation's highest court and riding circuit to hear cases in the particular jurisdictions they were assigned).

In his opinion for the circuit court, Iredell dismissed the suit for want of jurisdiction. If any court had jurisdiction over the dispute, Iredell said, it was the U.S. Supreme Court because Article III of the federal Constitution gave only the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over all cases in which a state is named as a party."It may fairly be presumed," Iredell wrote for the circuit court, "that the several States thought it important to stipulate that so awful and important a Trial [to which a State is party] should not be cognizable by any Court but the Supreme." Iredell's conclusion was not challenged when the Supreme Court heard Chisholm under its original jurisdiction.

One reason Iredell's lower court decision was not challenged in the Supreme Court is that Georgia would likely have been the only party objecting to it, and Georgia refused to appear before the nation's high court after Chisholm refiled his lawsuit there. Georgia feared that by making an appearance at trial, the Supreme Court would deem that appearance consent to the Court's jurisdiction over the dispute, something Georgia denied the Court had power to exercise. Nonetheless, in public pronouncements the Georgia governor made clear that he believed the Court had no jurisdiction because the state had not consented to the suit in its capacity as an independent and sovereign government. Without such consent, the Georgia legislature contended, the states are immune from being sued in federal court, and Article III did nothing to abrogate this immunity.

At oral argument, the Supreme Court thus heard only from Chisholm's attorney, EDMUND RANDOLPH. According to Caleb Nelson in his article on sovereign immunity, a courtroom observer later reported that Georgia "was right in not appearing to this action," since Chief Justice JOHN JAY "said from the Bench that had the State pleaded it would have been an acknowledgement of the jurisdiction of the Court." Having heard from only one party to the dispute, the Supreme Court had no choice but to enter a default judgment in Chisholm's favor. Chisholm v. Georgia,2 U.S. 419, 2 Dall. 419, 1 L.Ed. 440 (U.S. 1793).

In a 4–1 decision, the Court issued five separate opinions. Justices Jay, JAMES WILSON, WILLIAM CUSHING, and JOHN BLAIR JR. wrote opinions concurring in judgment, while Justice Iredell wrote the only dissent. The four concurring justices agreed that final sovereignty resided in the people of the United States, and at least for the purposes of this lawsuit Georgia was not a sovereign state. Wilson's opinion drew most attention among the concurring justices because Wilson had been the delegate who had introduced the Original Jurisdiction Clause at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, Wilson said it was difficult for him to imagine words that would "describe, with more precise accuracy, the cause now [pending] before the tribunal."

In his dissenting opinion Iredell observed that through the JUDICIARY ACT OF 1789 Congress had authorized federal courts to issue all writs "necessary for the exercise of their respective jurisdictions, and agreeable to the principles and usages of law." Judiciary Act of 1789, ch. 20, §14, 1 Stat. 73, 81-82. Iredell interpreted "principles and usages of law" to mean the COMMON LAW of the several states, which Iredell said embodied the common law as it existed in England when America was first settled. Under the English common law, the British Crown was sovereign and could not be sued without its consent. Iredell then concluded that the states enjoyed the same sovereign immunity as the English King at the time of the American settlement. Article III did not alter the states' immunity from being sued without their consent, Iredell continued, and "even if the Constitution would admit of the exercise of such a power, a new law is necessary for the purpose, since no part of the existing law applies, this alone is sufficient to justify my determination in the present case."

The states' reaction to the majority's decision in Chisholm was fast and furious. Each state understood the implications of being forced to pay Revolutionary War debt at a time when the state treasuries were struggling to avoid insolvency. The Massachusetts legislature led the way. In a resolution that was circulated to the other states, it condemned "a power … of compelling a State to be made defendant in any Court of the United States, at the suit of an individual." The resolution instructed the state's lawmakers "to obtain such amendments in the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES as will remove any clause or article of the said Constitution which can be construed to imply or justify a decision that a State is compellable to answer in any suit by an individual or individuals in any Court of the United States." Other states quickly followed suit.

Congress responded to this groundswell of state activity by drafting the Eleventh Amendment. It provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or EQUITY, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State …" In short, the Eleventh Amendment sought to guarantee states sovereign immunity from being sued in federal court without their consent, the very right denied to them in Chisholm. By 1798 the requisite 12 states had ratified the amendment. New Jersey and Pennsylvania refused to ratify, while Tennessee and South Carolina took no action.

Chisholm v. Georgia is considered the first great case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case forced the Court to grapple with contentious debates over FEDERALISM or the proper balance of power between the state and federal governments. It was heard by justices who not only participated in the Constitutional Convention, but by the one justice who had actually drafted the very constitutional provision being scrutinized. Finally, Chisholm v. Georgia is the first Supreme Court case that was superseded by a constitutional amendment.

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