The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the sovereign immunity of states against lawsuits brought in federal courts by citizens of different states or citizens or subjects of foreign nations. Nevertheless, Congress may abrogate states’ sovereign immunity in particular cases, but only if it expresses an unequivocal intention to do so and acts pursuant to one of its constitutional powers.
Congress attempted to do precisely that with the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The act was meant to regulate the Indian gambling industry. Under the act, Indian tribes had to negotiate with states before setting up gambling operations within state borders. The act required states to negotiate with those tribes in good faith.
When the Seminole Tribe of Florida sought to negotiate the creation of gambling facilities in the state, Florida refused to come to the table. The tribe sued, and the case—Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996)—ultimately came before the United States Supreme Court.
The Court determined Congress had clearly expressed its intent to override states’ Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity with the act, but Congress had done so without sufficient constitutional authority. Thus, the Court held Florida’s sovereign immunity protected it from the Seminole Tribe’s lawsuit.
However, the question of the extent to which Congress may limit states’ Eleventh Amendment sovereign authority continues to be a subject of debate and litigation.
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