Chisholm v. Georgia

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As one of the earliest constitutional law cases, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) said the people are sovereign.

The facts of Chisholm v. Georgia are simple. After the Revolutionary war of 1776, Chisholm (Plaintiff), a citizen of South Carolina, sued the state of Georgia (Defendant) in the USA Supreme Court to get payment of a debt. Georgia claimed sovereign immunity; thus, they defaulted by not showing up in court.

Here’s the issue. Was the state of Georgia subject to the USA Supreme Court’s and the federal government’s jurisdiction?

The decision was 4 to 1. In those days, the Jay Court only had five Justices. That being said, this decision was enough to make law.

Chisholm v. Georgia set the following rule: Article 3, Section 2 of the constitution allows a citizen to bring suit against a state. A state’s sovereign immunity does not matter.

Here’s the holding of Chisholm v. Georgia. The justices said Article 3, Section 2 applies; that is, individuals can sue the state. Moreover, the people are sovereign. Furthermore, states are subject to judicial review by the federal courts.

In the majority opinion, Justice Wilson said sovereignty resides in the people and the states have no sovereignty; therefore, article three, section two applies and individuals can sue the state.

In the dissent, Justice Iredell said states have sovereignty and cannot be sued by individuals. Furthermore, he said judges shouldn’t make common law because they never did in the past.

Because of this case, the states passed the 11th amendment. It was meant to deal with Article three, Section two and the Chisholm v. Georgia case. It said that states have sovereignty and cannot be sued.

In time, Hans v. Louisiana confirmed states have sovereignty. This case said that states have immunity from being sued, and federal courts do not have jurisdiction over state cases.

Later, the 14th Amendment Section five would give Congress the power to waive a state’s right to sovereignty. Examples would be numerous civil rights case. That being said, the 14th amendment modified the 11th amendment.

Although the 14th Amendment, Section 5, and the Hans case were on the law books, the Ex party Young case happened in 1908. This case allowed federal courts to hear lawsuits against the state; as a result, state immunity didn’t matter. A federal court issued injunctive relief in this case against a state official.

That being said, Eerie v. Tompkins would clear up the issue of federal judges making general federal common law. Eerie held that federal courts did not have the power to create general federal common law when hearing state diversity cases. Now, federal judges would have to take into account state law when it doesn’t conflict with federal law.

In the end, the meaning of Chisholm v. Georgia has been debated for hundreds of years. Are the people sovereign or do the state have sovereignty? What did the Revolution of 1776 mean? To this day, law professors and lawyers continue to argue over the meaning of Article 3, Section 2 of the constitution.

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