Supreme Court Says, 'Counties Not Protected
By Sovereign Immunity'
David Bloys -
News for Public Officials
Last spring, the United States Supreme Court reached a
decision that could have far reaching repercussions for county and city
governments. The case addresses whether state counties have sovereign
immunity from private lawsuits authorized by federal law. The Court ruled
unanimously that Chatham County, Georgia had no basis for claiming immunity
because they were not acting as an "arm of the state."
Sovereign immunity or crown immunity is a type of
immunity that in common law jurisdictions traces its origins from early
English law. Generally speaking, sovereign immunity is the doctrine that the
government cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or
criminal prosecution. County and city governments sometimes rely on sovereign
immunity to limit or stop suits by citizens that feel negligent behavior
on the part of local government has harmed them.
In Northern Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Chatham County,
although the county conceded that
Eleventh Amendment immunity did not extend to counties, it nonetheless
contended that it was immune under "the universal rule of state immunity
from suit without the state's consent." The United States District Court for
the Southern District of Georgia agreed and concluded that sovereign
immunity extends to counties and municipalities that, as here, "exercise
power delegated from the State." The District Court granted the County's
motion for summary judgment on the ground that the suit was barred by
On appeal, The Eleventh Circuit Court affirmed the
lower courts ruling. The
appeals court acknowledged that the county could not assert an Eleventh Amendment
immunity defense because, under Circuit precedent, the county did not
qualify as an arm of the state. However, the court nonetheless concluded
that a "residual immunity" had been carved out by American common law that
protected political subdivisions such as Chatham County. The case was
appealed to the Supreme Court.
On April 25, 2006, Justice Clarence Thomas delivered
the High Court's unanimous opinion, which reversed the decision of the
Eleventh Circuit. The Court ruled that the county was not entitled to
immunity, holding that a county that was not acting as an "arm of the state"
did not have sovereign immunity from lawsuits authorized by federal law.
The decision may be particularly troubling to
counties that are facing lawsuits for
federal privacy violations by county Websites. Most states do not require or
prohibit county government from publishing citizen's records online. The
decision is left to local officials.
According to the Court , "because the County may claim
immunity neither based upon its identity as a county nor under an expansive
arm-of-the-State test, the County is subject to suit unless it was acting as
an arm of the State."
Now that the Supreme Court has
determined that county government is not immune unless acting as an 'arm of
the state', county officials and their vendor partners may want to rethink
online policies that are outside the scope of the state's mandate and