According to Article III, Section 2 of the constitution,

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State;—between Citizens of different States;—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

This defines the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. For example, the federal judiciary has jurisdiction to hear cases where a citizen alleges that their own state is violating one of their rights granted by the federal constitution and seeks injunctive relief, since that falls under "arising under this Constitution".


In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.

My understanding of "original jurisdiction" is that it basically means "you can file this kind of case in this court". And since this is in the constitution, Congress can't take it away.

However, as far as I can tell, it's not actually allowed for an American to sue their own state directly in the Supreme Court. They have to file in a federal district court and then appeal the decision if they don't like it. Legally speaking, why is that?

3 Answers 3


The Eleventh Amendment has generally been construed to bar suits against a state by citizens of that state in federal court. There are all sorts of caveats, though, and it's possible that the doctrine is still evolving.

The text of the Amendment reads:

The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.

It doesn't contain explicit language prohibiting the citizens of a state from suing it in federal court. That extension surfaced throughout the 1880s and was formalized in Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890). Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), lends support to Hans, albeit as a 5-4 decision.

Cornell has a nice article on the current and historical view of sovereign immunity. It notes that the Supreme Court has left a number of important questions unanswered—including the nature of the states' immunity. It likewise tries to wrestle with the Article III question.

  • Sovereign immunity doesn't apply in cases where the plaintiff seeks injunctive relief against the state for violating a constitutional right (or a federal law). Clearly, in such cases, an American can sue their own state in federal court. My question is: what stops them from filing directly with the Supreme Court rather than a district court?
    – Brian
    Aug 29, 2020 at 22:15
  • @Brian The Supreme Court's original jurisdiction can be either exclusive or concurrent. Is that what you're asking?
    – Pat W.
    Aug 29, 2020 at 22:43
  • 1
    I'm aware that original jurisdiction can be concurrent. But doesn't that mean that the plaintiff has the choice of which court to file in? Legally, what stops a private citizen from choosing the Supreme Court (as opposed to a district court) as the venue for filing their complaint against their state?
    – Brian
    Aug 29, 2020 at 22:49
  • Setting aside the Eleventh Amendment question, even when the Supreme Court has concurrent jurisdiction, it still has discretion to hear a case or not. The Court can prevent forum shopping by way of Rule 17. The rule governs the Court's original jurisdiction and requires that initial pleadings be preceded by a motion for leave to file.
    – Pat W.
    Aug 30, 2020 at 10:54
  • I thought that original jurisdiction implies the absence of discretion, e.g., if one state wants to sue another state in the Supreme Court, the Court may not refuse to hear the case unless there is some specific reason why it's barred, or the proper filing procedure is not followed. If the Supreme Court also has original jurisdiction in the case of an individual suing their own state, what gives them the discretion to refuse to exercise that original jurisdiction?
    – Brian
    Sep 2, 2020 at 18:36

Under 28 USC 1254,

Cases in the courts of appeals may be reviewed by the Supreme Court by the following methods: (1) By writ of certiorari granted upon the petition of any party to any civil or criminal case, before or after rendition of judgment or decree;

or by certification by a court of appeals. Additionally, under 28 USC 1651(a),

The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.

So it is allowed, but highly disfavored. This article discusses extraordinary relief by SCOTUS and the court rules that work against such a path, bypassing lower courts. Rule 11 on "writs of certiorari before judgment, provides that such a petition will be granted 'only upon a showing that the case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.'" Rule 20 maintains that an extraordinary writ "is not a matter of right, but of discretion sparingly exercised." It must be proven that "adequate relief cannot be obtained in any other form or from any other court".

  • 4
    Petitioning for certiorari is basically the opposite of invoking the Court's original jurisdiction, which is what the OP seems to be asking about.
    – bdb484
    Aug 29, 2020 at 19:07

You cannot sue a State as an individual in the United States. You lack standing in every court. What you can do is engage in legal fiction and sue a State official in their official capacity, and in recent years a different State official can intervene in such a lawsuit. Which is preposterous because you remove the legal fiction and wind up with a party intervening in a legal action it's already a party to. But the Supreme Court of the United States is not a trial court, it does not decide issues of fact, it reviews lower court opinions, and on occasion has heard original writ proceedings on matters of pure law, when there are no issues of fact to be decided, which are properly decided by a jury in most cases. One example of an individual suing his State (effectively) via suing a prosecutor, by name, in his official capacity, was in Gideon v. Wainwright, where a handwritten petition from a nearly illiterate man serving 5 years in prison for a petty offense without ever talking to a lawyer on his indigent allotment of state provided paper he could have two sheets of per day and only write on one side or it would not be mailed out resulted in public defenders coming into existence nationwide so you never have to worry about defending yourself in court when charged with a crime that can get you more than six months in jail and a very small fine (unless you live in one of three states that screw people to save money and get away with it because original petitions for certiorari in the Supreme Court where you cannot represent yourself that are submitted by people without private pay counsel qualified to make argument there are increasingly extraordinarily rarely heard)

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