Like the title asks: I know that US states (and their agencies) can be sued by the United States in federal court (this is an exception to their normal sovereign immunity). Does this exception extend to criminal charges? If a state or a state agency does something which would result in criminal charges against a private corporation, could the United States bring charges against the state?

Citations would be nice, especially if there have actually been cases involving this.

  • Can we make a specific statement as to what kind of criminal charges? When you say sued what does that mean? The reason I ask is because there are many types o lawsuit, and different types of criminal violations. There is the state law, federal law, APA lawsuits, liability lawsuits, civil liability for criminal violations. etc... What I am asking specifically, is if a criminal conduct did happen, What kind of relief would you want? If you want money it would seem 42 § 1983 would be your thing, but..... that is not applicable to organizations. Under § 1983 you can only sue specific people. Jan 14, 2019 at 15:27

2 Answers 2


No, each state is a "sovereign" and whenever a statute describes a crime it is always some act committed by a "person" and these two categories are mutually exclusive.

See, for example, US Supreme Court in U.S. v. United Mine Workers of America, 330 U.S. 258, 67 SCt 677 (1947): "In common usage, the term `person' does not include the sovereign and statutes employing it will ordinarily not be construed to do so."

Repeated by US Supreme Court in Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe 442 US 653, 667 (1979): "In common usage, the term 'person' does not include the sovereign, and statutes employing the word are ordinarily construed to exclude it."


Sovereign Immunity (listed because it includes cases regarding it and exceptions) generally means that the federal government can really only sue the states over constitutional issues. Private suits--such as those brought on by a company or if the state/state agency wronged you--can go into federal courts to sue the state or, if the state has an insurer for damages, you can sue the insurer.

Some details for if you want to sue a city/state/county.

Alden v. Maine involved individuals suing states in federal courts for damages. It ruled that the Supremacy Clause (that federal law trumps state laws that violate it) applies when the Congress is enforcing laws in pursuant to the 14th amendment.

Armstrong v. Exception Child Center ruled that individuals cannot sue a state over federal law violations. It argued that the cannot enforce federal law and such an action is at the discretion of the congress under the Supremacy clause.

  • Your first link appears to contradict your first sentence. In that article: "Because the U.S. is a superior sovereign, it may need to bring suit against a state from time to time. According to the Supreme Court, proper jurisdiction for a contract suit by the United States Federal Government against a state is in Federal District Court."
    – DPenner1
    Aug 9, 2018 at 15:24

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