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Intergovernmental Immunity Doctrine

A principle established under CONSTITUTIONAL LAW that prevents the federal government and individual state governments from intruding on one another's sovereignty. Intergovernmental immunity is intended to keep government agencies from restricting the rights of other government agencies.

The principle of intergovernmental immunity was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in MCCULLOCH V. MARYLAND, 17 U.S. at 426 (1819), in which Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL and his fellow justices ruled unanimously that states may not regulate property or operations of the federal government. (Under Maryland state law, banks not chartered by the state were subject to restrictions and taxes; the state government had attempted to impose these restrictions on the Second Bank of the United States.)

The doctrine of intergovernmental immunity is frequently invoked in taxation cases. In Davis v. Michigan Department of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Michigan was in violation of federal law when it exempted state and local government pensions from taxation but levied taxes on federal government pensions. At the time, more than two dozen other states handled federal pensions in a similar manner.

The doctrine also keeps certain federal entities immune from state laws. The Smithsonian Institution is an example. While not a government agency in the strict sense of what that implies, it is considered an "instrumentality of the United States," and thus under federal jurisdiction. Therefore, the Smithsonian can establish charitable gift annuities and similar funding tools without being required to register under the charitable solicitation laws of individual states.

Intergovernmental immunity also governs the taxation of Native Americans living on federal lands, as well as tribal WATER RIGHTS.


Anzovin, Steven, and Janet Podell, eds. 1988. The U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court. New York: H. W. Wilson.

Immunity of Smithsonian Institution from State Insurance Laws. April 25, 1997. Department of Justice Memorandum. Available online at <www.justice.gov/olc/smithsonop2.htm> (accessed August 14, 2003).


States' Rights.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Indirect evidence to Internal Revenue Code