Supreme Court 2001-2002 Term: Summary of Decisions on Federalism and Separation of Powers

October 1, 2002

Sovereign Immunity
Fed. Maritime Comm’n v. S.C. State Ports Auth., 122 S. Ct.
1864 (2002).
Decided May 28, 2002.

South Carolina State Ports Authority (the “Port Authority”) refused to grant South Carolina Maritime Services Inc. (“Maritime”) permission to berth its cruise ship at the Port Authority’s port in Charleston, citing its anti-gambling policy. Maritime filed a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC), contending that the Port Authority had violated the Shipping Act of 1984. In the subsequent proceeding before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the Port Authority claimed that, as an arm of the State of South Carolina, it was entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment from Maritime’s suit. The ALJ agreed with the Port Authority, stating that “‘[i]f federal courts that are established under Article III of the Constitution must respect States’ 11th Amendment immunity and Congress is powerless to override the States’ immunity under Article I of the Constitution, it is irrational to argue that an agency like the Commission, created under an Article I statute, is free to disregard the 11th Amendment or its related doctrine of State immunity from private suits.’” Id. at 1869 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). Maritime did not appeal the ruling; however, the FMC, on its own motion, reviewed and reversed the ALJ’s ruling, holding that the Eleventh Amendment is intended to cover “‘proceedings before judicial tribunals . . . not executive branch administrative agencies.’” Id. (citation omitted). The Port Authority appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the FMC’s ruling, concluding that “the proceeding ‘walks, talks, and squawks very much like a lawsuit.’” Id. (citation omitted). The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy. Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg joined.

Supreme Court 2001-2002 Term: Summary of Decisions on Federalism and Separation of Powers