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Edelman v. Jordan


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415 U.S. 651 (1974), argued 12 Dec. 1973, decided 25 Mar. 1974 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall (joined by Blackmun) in dissent. As interpreted by the Supreme Court, the Eleventh Amendment generally prohibits suits against a state in the federal courts, without its consent, by citizens of that state or of other states. Edelman v. Jordan concerns the scope of exceptions to that prohibition.

John Jordan filed a class-action lawsuit against several Illinois state and county officials (in effect, against the state), arguing that they were administering federal aid under aged, blind, or disabled programs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and of federal regulations by initiating payments later than was required by federal law. A federal district court found the state rules to violate federal regulations and ordered retroactive payments to individuals whose rights had been violated.

On appeal, the state officials argued that ordering retroactive payments was barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The court of appeals ruled against them, but the Supreme Court reversed its decision. The Court held that participation by Illinois in the federal program did not constitute a waiver of its Eleventh Amendment immunity to suits. It also held that a 1908 decision, Ex parte Young, which allowed suits against states to obtain injunctions affecting their future policies, did not extend to suits for retroactive payments by a state. The dissenters attacked both these holdings.

The impact of Edelman has been limited by more recent decisions that allow Congress to overcome the immunity of states from lawsuits through its powers to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment (Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 1976) and to regulate commerce (Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 1989). Because of the breadth of those powers, these decisions significantly narrow state immunity.

Lawrence Baum

Subjects: Law.


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