Chisholm v. Georgia 2 Dallas 419 (1793)

views updated

CHISHOLM v. GEORGIA 2 Dallas 419 (1793)

The first constitutional law case decided by the Supreme Court, Chisholm provoked opposition so severe that the eleventh amendment was adopted to supersede its ruling that a state could be sued without its consent by a citizen of another state. Article III of the Constitution extended the judicial power of the united states to all controversies "between a State and citizens of another State" and provided that the Supreme Court should have original jurisdiction in all cases in which a state should be a party. During the ratification controversy, anti-Federalists, jealous of state prerogatives and suspicious about the consolidating effects of the proposed union, had warned that Article III would abolish state sovereignty. Ratificationists, including john marshall, james madison, and alexander hamilton (e.g., the federalist #81) had argued that the clause intended to cover only suits in which a state had given its sovereign consent to being sued or had instituted the suit. Here, however, with Justice james iredell alone dissenting, the Justices in seriatim opinions held that the states by ratifying the Constitution had agreed to be amenable to the judicial power of the United States and in that respect had abandoned their sovereignty.

The case arose when Chisholm, a South Carolinian executor of the estate of a Tory whose lands Georgia had confiscated during the Revolution, sued Georgia for restitution. The state remonstrated against the Court's taking jurisdiction of the case and refused to argue on the merits. The Justices, confronted by a question of sovereignty, discoursed on the nature of the Union, giving the case historical importance. Iredell, stressing the sovereignty of the states respecting reserved powers, believed that no sovereign state could be sued without its consent unless Congress so authorized. Chief Justice john jay and Justice james wilson, delivering the most elaborate opinions against Georgia, announced for the first time from the bench the ultra-nationalistic doctrine that the people of the United States, rather than the states or people thereof, had formed the Union and were the ultimate sovereigns. From this view, the suability of the states was compatible with their reserved sovereignty, and the clause in Article III neither excluded suits by outside citizens nor required state consent.

The decision, which seemed to open the treasuries of the states to suits by Tories and other creditors, stirred widespread indignation that crossed sectional and party lines. A special session of the Massachusetts legislature recommended an amendment that would prevent the states from being answerable in the federal courts to suits by individuals. Virginia, taking the same action, condemned the Court for a decision dangerous to the sovereignty of the states. The Georgia Assembly would have defied the decision by a bill providing that any United States officer attempting to enforce it should "suffer death, without benefit of clergy, by being hanged." Though the state senate did not pass the bill, Georgia remained defiant. Congress too opposed the decision and finally agreed on a remedy for it that took the form of the Eleventh Amendment.

Leonard W. Levy


Mathis, Doyle 1967 Chisholm v. Georgia : Background and Settlement. Journal of American History 54:19–29.