In The

Supreme Court of the United States




Decided June 23, 1997

Justice O’Connor, Concurring

Topic: Federalism*Court vote: 5–4
Click any Justice for detail
Joining O'Connor opinion: Justice SCALIA Justice SCALIA Justice THOMAS Justice THOMAS
Citation: 521 U.S. 261 Docket: 94–1474Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

Next opinion >< Previous opinion

DISCLAIMER: Only United States Reports are legally valid sources for Supreme Court opinions. The text below is provided for ease of access only. If you need to cite the exact text of this opinion or if you would like to view the opinions of the other Justices in this case, please view the original United States Report at the Library of Congress or Justia. The Sandra Day O'Connor Institute does not in any way represent, warrant, or guarantee that the text below is accurate."


JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom JUSTICE SCALIA and JUSTICE THOMAS join, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho seeks declaratory and injunctive relief precluding Idaho officials from regulating or interfering with its possession of submerged lands beneath Lake Coeur d'Alene. Invoking the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123 (1908), the Tribe argues that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar it from pursuing its claims against state officials in federal court. I agree with the Court that the Tribe's claim cannot go forward in federal court.

In Young, the Court held that a federal court has jurisdiction over a suit against a state officer to enjoin official actions that violate federal law, even if the State itself is immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. The Young doctrine recognizes that if a state official violates federal law, he is stripped of his official or representative character and may be personally liable for his conduct; the State cannot cloak the officer in its sovereign immunity. Id., at 159-160. Where a plaintiff seeks prospective relief to end a state officer's ongoing violation of federal law, such a claim can ordinarily proceed in federal court. Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U. S. 267, 289-290 (1977). The doctrine is not, however, without limitations. A federal court cannot award retrospective relief, designed to remedy past violations of federallaw. See Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U. S. 651, 668 (1974); Green v. Mansour, 474 U. S. 64, 68-69 (1985). This case is unlike a typical Young action in two important respects. First, as the Tribe concedes, the suit is the functional equivalent of an action to quiet its title to the bed of Lake Coeur d'Alene. It asks a federal court to declare that the lands are for the exclusive use, occupancy, and enjoyment of the Tribe and to invalidate all statutes and ordinances purporting to regulate the lands. The Tribe could not maintain a quiet title action in federal court without the State's consent, and for good reason: A federal court cannot summon a State before it in a private action seeking to divest the State of a property interest. Florida Dept. of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc., 458 U. S. 670, 699-700 (1982) (plurality opinion); see Ford Motor Co. v. Department of Treasury of Ind., 323 U. S. 459, 464 (1945). Second, the Tribe does not merely seek to possess land that would otherwise remain subject to state regulation, or to bring the State's regulatory scheme into compliance with federal law. Rather, the Tribe seeks to eliminate altogether the State's regulatory power over the submerged lands at issue-to establish not only that the State has no right to possess the property, but also that the property is not within Idaho's sovereign jurisdiction at all. We have repeatedly emphasized the importance of submerged lands to state sovereignty. Control of such lands is critical to a State's ability to regulate use of its navigable waters. Utah Div. of State Lands v. United States, 482 U. S. 193, 195 (1987).

The Tribe's claim to federal jurisdiction rests heavily on cases that, in my view, do not control here. The first is Treasure Salvors, in which a plurality concluded that a federal court could issue a warrant commanding Florida officials to release certain artifacts because the suit was not, in effect, a suit against the State. But the fact that the suit was permitted to proceed in Treasure Salvors does not advance our inquiry. The plurality's conclusion that the suit was not against the State was based on its view that state officials lacked any colorable basis under state law for claiming right ful possession of the artifacts. 458 U. S., at 692-697. Put another way, the plurality in Treasure Salvors would have permitted the suit to proceed not because the plaintiff's claim of title arguably rested on federal law, see post, at 311 (SOUTER, J., dissenting), but because state officials were acting beyond the authority conferred on them by the State, quite apart from whether their conduct also violated federal law. Because the Tribe does not pursue such a theory, Treasure Salvors provides little guidance here. In addition, whether or not the Court's ultimate holding in Treasure Salvors that the suit should proceed remains sound on the theory that the plaintiff identified a federal law basis for its claim of title, see post, at 307, n. 9 (SOUTER, J., dissenting), the only reasoning explicitly offered by the Treasure Salvors plurality was narrowed by our subsequent decision in Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U. S. 89, 106 (1984) (plaintiff cannot invoke Young doctrine based solely on alleged violation of state law); see 465 U. S., at 114, n. 25.

Second, the Tribe invokes a series of cases in which plaintiffs successfully pursued in federal court claims that federal and state officials wrongfully possessed certain real property. See, e. g., United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196 (1882); Tindal v. Wesley, 167 U. S. 204 (1897). In both Lee and Tindal, the Court made clear that the suits could proceed against the officials because no judgment would bind the State. It was possible, the Court found, to distinguish between possession of the property and title to the property. See Lee, supra, at 222; Tindal, supra, at 223-224. A court could find that the officials had no right to remain in possession, thus conveying all the incidents of ownership to the plaintiff, while not formally divesting the State of its title. As noted, however, this case does not concern ownership and possession of an ordinary parcel of real property. When state officials are found to have no right to possess a disputed parcel of land, the State nevertheless retains its authority to regulate uses of the land. Here, the Tribe seeks a declaration not only that the State does not own the bed of Lake Coeur d'Alene, but also that the lands are not within the State's sovereign jurisdiction. Whatever distinction can be drawn between possession and ownership of real property in other contexts, it is not possible to make such a distinction for submerged lands. For this reason, Lee, Tindal, and analogous cases do not control here. In my view, because a ruling in the Tribe's favor, in practical effect, would be indistinguishable from an order granting the Tribe title to submerged lands, the Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment's bar is not properly invoked here.

While I therefore agree that the Tribe's suit must be dismissed, I believe that the principal opinion is flawed in several respects. In concluding that the Tribe's suit cannot proceed, the principal opinion reasons that federal courts determining whether to exercise jurisdiction over any suit against a state officer must engage in a case-specific analysis of a number of concerns, including whether a state forum is available to hear the dispute, what particular federal right the suit implicates, and whether "special factors counse[l] hesitation" in the exercise of jurisdiction. Ante, at 274, 275, 278-280 (internal quotation marks omitted). This approach unnecessarily recharacterizes and narrows much of our Young jurisprudence. The parties have not briefed whether such a shift in the Young doctrine is warranted. In my view, it is not.

The principal opinion begins by examining this Court's early Young cases and concludes that the Court found the exercise of federal jurisdiction proper in those cases principally because no state forum was available to vindicate a plaintiff's claim that state officers were violating federal law. Ante, at 270-274. But the principal opinion cites not a single case in which the Court expressly relied on the absence of an available state forum as a rationale for applying Young. Instead, the principal opinion invokes language in the Court's opinions suggesting that the plaintiff could not secure an adequate remedy at law in a state forum. See Young, 209 U. S., at 163; Osborn v. Bank of United States, 9 Wheat. 738, 838-846 (1824); Lee, supra, at 213, 219. But the inadequacy of a legal remedy is a prerequisite for equitable relief in any case. That we pronounced state legal remedies inadequate before permitting the suit to proceed is unsurprising, and it is not a sufficient basis for the principal opinion's broad conclusion.

Not only do our early Young cases fail to rely on the absence of a state forum as a basis for jurisdiction, but we also permitted federal actions to proceed even though a state forum was open to hear the plaintiff's claims. In fact, Young itself relied on two such cases, Reagan v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., 154 U. S. 362 (1894), and Smyth v. Ames, 169 U. S. 466 (1898). See 209 U. S., at 153-155. Both Reagan and Smyth, like Young, involved challenges to state enforcement of railroad rates. In each case, the Court permitted the federal suit to proceed in part because state statutes authorized state court challenges to those rates. As Young made clear, however, the fact that the States had waived immunity in their own courts was not the sole basis for permitting the federal suit to proceed. Discussing Reagan, the Young Court stated: "This court held that [language authorizing a suit in state court] permitted a suit in [federal court], but it also held that, irrespective of that consent, the suit was not in effect a suit against the State (although the Attorney General was enjoined), and therefore not prohibited under the [Eleventh] [A]mendment.... Each of these grounds is effective and both are of equal force." 209 U. S., at 153 (emphasis added). Similarly, the Young Court emphasized that the decision in Smyth was not based solely on the state statute authorizing suit in state court; rather, it was based on the conclusion that the suit "was not a suit against a State." 209 U. S., at 154. In any event, as the principal opinion ultimately concedes, in more recent cases Young has been applied "[e]ven if there is a prompt and effective remedy in a state forum." Ante, at 274. When a plaintiff seeks prospective relief to end an ongoing violation of federal rights, ordinarily the Eleventh Amendment poses no bar. Milliken, 433 U. S., at 289-290. Yet the principal opinion unnecessarily questions this basic principle of federal law, finding it "difficult to say States consented to these types of suits in the plan of the Convention.... For purposes of the Supremacy Clause, it is simply irrelevant whether the claim is brought in state or federal court." Ante, at 274-275. We have frequently acknowledged the importance of having federal courts open to enforce and interpret federal rights. See Green v. Mansour, 474 U. S., at 68 ("[T]he availability of prospective relief of the sort awarded in Ex parte Young gives life to the Supremacy Clause. Remedies designed to end a continuing violation of federal law are necessary to vindicate the federal interest in assuring the supremacy of that law"); Pennhurst, 465 U. S., at 105 ("[T]he Young doctrine has been accepted as necessary to permit the federal courts to vindicate federal rights and hold state officials responsible to the supreme authority of the United States.... Our decisions repeatedly have emphasized that the Young doctrine rests on the need to promote the vindication of federal rights" (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). There is no need to call into question the importance of having federal courts interpret federal rights-particularly as a means of serving a federal interest in uniformity-to decide this case. Nor does acknowledging the interpretive function of federal courts suggest that state courts are inadequate to apply federal law.

In casting doubt upon the importance of having federal courts interpret federal law, the principal opinion lays the groundwork for its central conclusion: that a case-by-case balancing approach is appropriate where a plaintiff invokes the Young exception to the Eleventh Amendment's jurisdic tional bar, even when a complaint clearly alleges a violation of federal law and clearly seeks prospective relief. The principal opinion characterizes our modern Young cases as fitting this case-by-case model. Ante, at 278-280. While it is true that the Court has decided a series of cases on the scope of the Young doctrine, these cases do not reflect the principal opinion's approach. Rather, they establish only that a Young suit is available where a plaintiff alleges an ongoing violation of federal law, and where the relief sought is prospective rather than retrospective. Compare Milliken, supra, at 289-290, with Green, supra, at 68 (Eleventh Amendment bars notice relief where plaintiffs alleged no ongoing violation of federal law); Pennhurst, supra, at 106 (Eleventh Amendment bars suit alleging violation of state rather than federal law); Edelman, 415 U. S., at 668 (Eleventh Amendment bars relief for past violation of federal law).

The principal opinion properly notes that the Court found some of the relief awarded by the lower court in Edelman an order requiring state officials to release and remit federal benefits-barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Ante, at 278; see Edelman, supra, at 668. It then states that the Court did not consider the propriety of other relief awarded below-an injunction requiring state officials to abide by federal requirements-because the State conceded that such relief was proper under Young. Ante, at 278. The principal opinion appears to suggest that the Court could have found such relief improper in the absence of this concession. But surely the State conceded this point because the law was well established. Indeed, Edelman is consistently cited for the proposition that prospective injunctive relief is available in a Young suit. See, e. g., Milliken, supra, at 289. Similarly, by focusing on the Court's statement in Quern v. Jordan, 440 U. S. 332, 349 (1979), that the state officials did not object to preparing or sending notice of class members' possible remedies under state administrative procedures, ante, at 278-279, the principal opinion implies that the Court upheld the prospective relief granted there because the relief was not particularly invasive. But the question in Quern was whether the notice relief was more like the prospective relief allowed in typical Young suits, or more like the retrospective relief disallowed in Edelman. 440 U. S., at 347. The Quern Court permitted the relief to stand not because it was inconsequential, but because it was adjudged prospective. Finally, the principal opinion explains this Court's decision in Milliken-which upheld an order requiring a State to pay for a comprehensive education for children who had been subjected to segregation-by focusing on the fact that the federal interests implicated by the claim in that case were particularly strong. Ante, at 279-280. Again, however, the Court upheld the relief not because the complaint sought to vindicate civil liberties, but because the remedy was prospective rather than retrospective. 433 U. S., at 289. Our case law simply does not support the proposition that federal courts must evaluate the importance of the federal right at stake before permitting an officer's suit to proceed.

Nor can I agree with the principal opinion's attempt to import the inquiry employed in Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 (1971), into our Young jurisprudence. Ante, at 280. In the Bivens context, where the issue is whether an implied remedy for money damages exists in a suit against a federal official for a constitutional violation, we have declined to recognize such a remedy where we have identified "special factors counselling hesitation." 403 U. S., at 396. In likening Young actions to Bivens actions, the principal opinion places great weight on a single citation in the Court's opinion last Term in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U. S. 44 (1996). There, relying on Schweiker v. Chilicky, 487 U. S. 412, 423 (1988), we noted that where Congress has created a remedial scheme for the enforcement of a federal right, we may not supplement that scheme in a suit against a federal officer with a judicially created remedy. We reasoned that the same general princi pIe should apply in Young cases. That is, where Congress prescribes a detailed remedial scheme for enforcement of a statutory right, a court should not lift the Eleventh Amendment bar to apply its "full remedial powers" in a suit against an officer in a manner inconsistent with the legislative scheme. 517 U. S., at 75. The single citation to a Bivens case in Seminole Tribe by no means establishes that a caseby-case balancing approach to the Young doctrine is appropriate or consistent with our jurisprudence.

In sum, the principal opinion replaces a straightforward inquiry into whether a complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective with a vague balancing test that purports to account for a "broad" range of unspecified factors. Ante, at 280. In applying that approach here, the principal opinion relies on characteristics of this case that do not distinguish it from cases in which the Young doctrine is properly invoked, such as the fact that the complaint names numerous public officials and the fact that the State will have a continuing interest in litigation against its officials. Ante, at 269-270, 282-283. These factors cannot supply a basis for deciding this case. Every Young suit names public officials, and we have never doubted the importance of state interests in cases falling squarely within our past interpretations of the Young doctrine.

While I do not subscribe to the principal opinion's reformulation of the appropriate jurisdictional inquiry for all cases in which a plaintiff invokes the Young doctrine, I nevertheless agree that the Court reaches the correct conclusion here. The Young doctrine rests on the premise that a suit against a state official to enjoin an ongoing violation of federal law is not a suit against the State. Where a plaintiff seeks to divest the State of all regulatory power over submerged lands-in effect, to invoke a federal court's jurisdiction to quiet title to sovereign lands-it simply cannot be said that the suit is not a suit against the State. I would not narrow our Young doctrine, but I would not extend it to reach this case. Accordingly, I join Parts I, II-A, and III of the Court's opinion.

Supreme Court icon marking end of opinion

Header photo: United States Supreme Court. Credit: Patrick McKay / Flickr - CC.