The Fuller Court (1888–1910)

Criminal Justice

What landmark decision on the Eleventh Amendment sanctioned the jailing of a state attorney general?

The Fuller Court ruled 8–1 in Ex Parte Young (1908) that a federal court could issue a contempt citation against Minnesota attorney general Edward T. Young for violating a federal court order temporarily preventing him from enforcing new state laws that limited railroad rates. The state of Minnesota had passed a law that controlled the rates of railroads. Several railways responded by suing in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of this state law. They argued that the new law deprived the companies of their property rights in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Attorney General Young ignored the federal court’s temporary injunction and the next day proceeded to enforce the new railway rate laws in state court. The federal court then ordered Young to show cause why he should not be jailed for contempt of court for ignoring the federal court order. Young argued that, as the attorney general of Minnesota, he was entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which generally protects states from lawsuits by citizens.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Young in an opinion written by Justice Rufus Peckham, who reasoned that state officials are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity if they attempt to enforce laws that violate the Constitution. In such cases, the official is “stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct.” Peckham concluded: “The state cannot … impart to the official immunity from the responsibility to the supreme authority of the United States.”


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