Chisholm v. Georgia

views updated May 18 2018


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 theeleventh amendment, which gives statessovereign immunityfrom 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.

further readings

Lee, Thomas H. 2002. "Making Sense of the Eleventh Amendment: International Law and State Sovereignity." Northwestern University Law Review (spring).

Meyler, Joan. 2001. "A Matter of Misinterpretation, State Soveriegn Immunity, and Eleventh Amendment Jurispurdence." Howard Law Journal 45 (fall): 77–154.

Nelson, Caleb. 2002. "Sovereign Immunity as a Doctrine of Personal Jurisdiction."Harvard Law Review 115 (April): 1561–1654.

Pfander, James E. 1998. "History and State Suability: An 'Explanatory' Account of the Eleventh Amendment." Cornell Law Review 83 (July): 1269–1382.

Strasser, Mark. 2001. "Chisholm, the Eleventh Amendment, and Sovereign Immunity: On Alden's Return to Confederation Principles." Florida State University Law Review 28 (spring): 605–48.


Eleventh Amendment; Federalism; Sovereign Immunity.

Chisholm v. Georgia

views updated May 23 2018


Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) was the first important decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and during the early national period the most controversial. Reaction to the decision was so strong, and so negative, that it led to the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which prevented the Supreme Court from ever hearing such a case again.

The facts behind Chisholm are relatively mundane. During the Revolution, Robert Farquhar, a South Carolina businessman, sold various goods to the state of Georgia, which then refused to pay its bills. Complicating this case was the fact that while he sold goods to Georgia, Farquhar himself was a Loyalist, which may explain why Georgia refused to pay him. This fact, and the fear that other Loyalists would sue the states, may also explain Georgia's adamant hostility to the Supreme Court taking jurisdiction in the case. Alexander Chisholm, who was Farquhar's executor, sued Georgia to recover the money. He brought suit under the clause in Article III, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which gave jurisdiction to the federal courts in suits "between a State and Citizens of another State." Georgia refused to send counsel to the Supreme Court to even argue the case. Georgia simply denied that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the matter.

Justice James Iredell of North Carolina agreed with Georgia that the federal courts had no jurisdiction to hear the suit of a private citizen brought against a state. The rest of the Court disagreed. Justice James Wilson believed the case went to the heart of what a nation was. He rejected the idea that the states were sovereign, and thus they could not be sued against their will. Chief Justice John Jay agreed, asserting that the Constitution "recognizes and rests upon this great moral truth, that justice is the same whether due from one man to a million, or from a million to one man."

The Court found in favor of Chisholm and entered a default judgment for him. This set the stage for a trial on the actual damages. But that trial never took place. Even if it had taken place, Georgia's governor, Edward Telfair, made it clear that his state would never submit to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court on this matter. However, Georgia ultimately settled the case out of court, and the legislature appropriated money to Chisholm.

The most important result of the case was not Georgia's initial refusal to abide by a Supreme Court decision but the almost universal rejection of the holding by American politicians. The Supreme Court issued its decision on 17 February 1793. Within two days of the decision U.S. senators were considering an amendment to the Constitution to prevent citizens of one state from suing other states in federal court. Within a year of the decision both the House and Senate had voted in favor of such an amendment. By 7 February 1795, almost exactly two years after the decision, the amendment had received the support of three-fourths of the states and was thus in theory ratified. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the amendment did not officially become part of the Constitution until 8 January 1798. This was the first change in the Constitution since the adoption of the Bill of Rights. But unlike the first ten amendments, the Eleventh Amendment dealt with the restructuring of the original Constitution. The amendment simply declared that the judicial power of the federal courts did not "extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State."

See alsoBill of Rights; Constitution: Eleventh Amendment; Supreme Court .


Orth, John V. The Judicial Power of the United States: The Eleventh Amendment in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Paul Finkelman

Chisholm v. Georgia

views updated Jun 11 2018


CHISHOLM V. GEORGIA, 2 Dallas 419 (1793). The heirs of Alexander Chisholm, citizens of South Carolina, sued the state of Georgia to enforce payment of claims against that state. Georgia refused to defend the suit, and the Supreme Court, upholding the right of citizens of one state to sue another state under Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, ordered judgment by default against Georgia. No writ of execution was attempted because of threats by the lower house of the Georgia legislature. The Eleventh Amendment ended such actions.


Corwin, Edward S. The Commerce Power versus States Rights. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1962.

Orth, John V. The Judicial Power of the United States: The Eleventh Amendment in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

E. MertonCoulter/a. r.

See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Georgia ; State Sovereignty ; States' Rights .

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