209 U.S. 123 (1908), argued 2–3 Dec. 1907, decided 23 Mar. 1908 by vote of 8 to 1; Peckham for the Court, Harlan in dissent. One incident in the long contest over state legislation to control the power of railroads, Ex parte Young became a landmark in federal jurisdiction over state officers. A 1907 Minnesota law reduced railroad rates and imposed Draconian penalties on violators. Illustrating Oliver Wendell Holmes's maxim that “people who no longer hope to control the legislatures … look to the courts,” railroad shareholders brought a derivative action in federal court seeking to enjoin their companies from complying with the law and state officers from enforcing it. The reduced rates were alleged to be confiscatory, depriving the companies of their property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The petitioners claimed that an injunction was needed because the penalties were so severe that the companies could not afford to violate the law in order to test its constitutionality directly. Although a temporary injunction was granted, Young, the Minnesota attorney general, violated it by seeking to enforce the new rates in state court. Jailed for contempt, he petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus.
Holding against Young, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Rufus Peckham, completed the jurisdictional circle. Although the Eleventh Amendment restricts the power of federal courts to hear suits against states, Peckham wrote that a state officer seeking to enforce an unconstitutional statute is “in that case stripped of his official or representative character and is subjected in his person to the consequences of his individual conduct” (p. 160). Peckham left unanswered the question how, if “stripped of his official or representative character,” the officer was threatening state action for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment (p. 160). In In re Ayers (1887), a procedurally similar case, the Court had discharged another state attorney general who had been imprisoned for seeking to enforce state law in violation of a federal injunction. Peckham put to rest the embarrassment by limiting Ayers, a state bond repudiation case, to cases involving an attempt to compel a state to perform its contract.
In a lengthy dissent Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that the Court's decision would “practically obliterate the Eleventh Amendment” (p. 204). He too was embarrassed since he had dissented in Ayers. “I propose,” Harlan wrote, “to adhere to former decisions of the court, whatever may have been once my opinion as to certain aspects of this general question” (p. 169). In a final irony the Court subsequently determined, in Simpson v. Shepard (1913), that the Minnesota railroad rates were not unconstitutional, so Young had not committed a wrong after all.
In its day, Ex parte Young was an unpopular decision. The same Court and the same justice who decided Lochner v. New York (1905), invalidating a state regulation of the hours of labor, had again sided with the monied interests against the public. “Government by injunction” was condemned, and Congress, fending off bills to curtail the power of federal courts, responded with the cumbersome and inefficient Three-Judge Court Act of 1910, which created a special court of three judges and a direct appeal to the Supreme Court to handle suits for injunctions against state officers. (The act was largely repealed in 1976, long after it had outlived it usefulness.) Among legal scholars, especially in recent years, the case of Ex parte Young has been widely criticized and its illogicality regularly demonstrated. The Supreme Court, too, had been loath to extend the case, refusing in Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman (1984) to apply “the fiction of Young” to official violations of state law (p. 105). Notwithstanding its illogicality, Ex parte Young has long survived Lochner and substantive due process because of its indispensability to the federal scheme of government. As Holmes (who joined the majority in Young) elsewhere observed, “the Union would be imperiled” if the Supreme Court could not declare unconstitutional the laws of the several states. The power to enjoin state officers from violating federal law seems a necessary adjunct to that ability. Ironically, this power, forged by corporate shareholders and a conservative Court, is today regularly exercised on behalf of private (and otherwise powerless) parties in conflict with state governments.