Legal Definition of Sovereign Immunity
Sovereign immunity is a doctrine precluding the institution of a suit against the sovereign [government] without its consent.2 min read
A doctrine precluding the institution of a suit against the sovereign [government] without its consent. Though commonly believed to be rooted in English law, it is actually rooted in the inherent nature of power and the ability of those who hold power to shield themselves.
Sovereign Immunity in England
In England, it was predicated on the concept that "the sovereign can do no wrong."
Sovereign Immunity in America
However, since the American revolution explicitly rejected this interesting idea, the American rulers had to come up with another rationale to protect their power. What they came up with is that the "sovereign is exempt from suit [on the] practical ground that there can be no legal right against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends." 205 U.S. 349, 353.
"Statues waiving the sovereign immunity of the United States must be`construed strictly in favor of the sovereign." McMahon v. the United States, 342 U.S. 25, 27 (1951).
11 U.S.C. S 106, "Waiver of Sovereign Immunity," provides:
(a) A governmental unit is deemed to have waived sovereign immunity with respect to any claim against such governmental unit that is the property of the estate and that arose out of the same transaction or occurrence out of which such governmental unit's claim arose.
Federal Sovereign Immunity
The interest served by federal sovereign immunity (the United States' freedom from paying damages without Congressional consent):
Federal sovereign immunity is readily distinguishable from the states' immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and foreign governments' immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The latter two doctrines allow one sovereign entity the right to avoid, altogether, being subjected to litigation in another sovereign's courts. Pullman Constr., 23 F.3d at 1169.
Similar sovereignty concerns are not implicated by the maintenance of the suit against the United States in federal court. Federal sovereign immunity has had such broad exceptions carved out of it that, as Pullman Construction concluded, "Congress, on behalf of the United States, has surrendered any comparable right not to be a litigant in its own courts." Id.
In the present day, federal sovereign immunity serves merely to channel litigation into the appropriate avenue for redress, ensuring that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." Pullman Constr. at 1168 (quoting Art. I, section 9, cl. 7).
Federal sovereign immunity is a defense to liability rather than a right to be free from trial.
The Supreme Court has ruled that in a case involving the government's sovereign immunity, the statute in question must be strictly construed in favor of the sovereign and may not be enlarged beyond the waiver its language expressly requires. See United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 33-35 (1992).