Alden v. Maine

527 U.S. 706 (1999)

Quick Summary

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Alden (plaintiff) and other probation officers sued Maine (defendant) for unpaid overtime according to FLSA standards. The dispute revolved around whether states can be sued in their own courts without consent and if Congress has power under Article I to override state sovereign immunity.

The Supreme Court ruled that states retain immunity from such private suits, affirming Maine’s immunity from Alden’s claims. The Court held that Congress lacks authority under Article I to subject nonconsenting states to private suits in state courts.

Facts of the Case

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A group of probation officers, including Alden (plaintiff), sued the State of Maine (defendant), claiming that Maine failed to pay overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). Initially, their case was dismissed due to the principle of state sovereign immunity as established in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida. After this dismissal from the federal court, Alden and his colleagues took their case to the state court, which also upheld Maine’s immunity from suit.

This case reached the United States Supreme Court amidst a conflict between state and federal jurisdiction concerning state sovereign immunity and the FLSA’s stipulations, raising constitutional questions about the powers delegated to Congress under Article I.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Alden filed suit against Maine in federal district court for violating the FLSA’s overtime provisions.
  2. The district court dismissed the action based on the Seminole Tribe decision, which was affirmed by the court of appeals.
  3. Alden subsequently filed the action in state court, which was also dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity.
  4. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the dismissal, leading Alden to petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether Congress has the authority under Article I of the Constitution to abrogate states’ sovereign immunity, allowing private suits for damages against nonconsenting states in their own courts.

Rule of Law

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The powers delegated to Congress under Article I of the United States Constitution do not include the power to subject nonconsenting States to private suits for damages in state courts.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Court’s reasoning centered on the interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment and historical context indicating that states retained sovereign immunity from suit unless they consented. They referenced English law and American history, emphasizing that sovereignty and immunity from private suits were well-established principles when the Constitution was drafted. The Court also concluded that the State of Maine had not consented to suits under the FLSA for overtime pay and liquidated damages.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, argued that this understanding of sovereignty was essential to the federal system established by the Constitution and that it was never intended for states to be amenable to suits by individuals without their consent.


Conclusion Icon

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, holding that Maine was immune from the suit filed by Alden and his fellow officers. No damages or grants were awarded as the suit was dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity.

Dissenting Opinions

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Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., challenging the majority’s view on state sovereign immunity and the implications for federal legislative powers under Article I.

Key Takeaways

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  1. The Eleventh Amendment and historical context affirm states’ sovereign immunity from private suits unless explicitly waived.
  2. Congress does not have authority under Article I of the Constitution to abrogate state sovereign immunity in state courts.
  3. The decision emphasizes a fundamental aspect of state sovereignty within the federal system of governance.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a waiver of state sovereign immunity?

A waiver of state sovereign immunity occurs when a state expressly consents to be sued, often through legislative action or contractual agreement.

  • For example: A state enacts a statute consenting to be sued for environmental violations caused by its agencies.

Can federal legislation override state sovereign immunity?

Federal legislation cannot override state sovereign immunity unless it is pursuant to Congress’s powers under the Fourteenth Amendment or other constitutional provisions that explicitly authorize such abrogation.

  • For example: The Americans with Disabilities Act, under Congress’s Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power, allowing private suits against states for discrimination.

How does the principle of federalism impact the relationship between states and the federal government in the context of lawsuits?

The principle of federalism delineates the distribution of power, respecting the sovereignty of states and preventing overreach by the federal government, particularly in matters such as instituting lawsuits against nonconsenting states.

  • For example: A federal court honoring a state’s claim to sovereign immunity by dismissing a case when no clear consent or constitutional provision allows the suit.


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