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WILL v. MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT STATE POLICE ET AL.

decided: June 15, 1989.

WILL
v.
MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MICHIGAN.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 71. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 87.

Author: White

[ 491 U.S. Page 60]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a State, or an official of the State while acting in his or her official capacity, is a "person" within the meaning of Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U. S. C. § 1983.

Petitioner Ray Will filed suit in Michigan Circuit Court alleging various violations of the United States and Michigan Constitutions as grounds for a claim under § 1983.*fn1 He alleged that he had been denied a promotion to a data systems analyst position with the Department of State Police for an improper reason, that is, because his brother had been a student activist and the subject of a "red squad" file maintained by respondent. Named as defendants were the Department of State Police and the Director of State Police in his official capacity, also a respondent here.*fn2

The Circuit Court remanded the case to the Michigan Civil Service Commission for a grievance hearing. While the grievance was pending, petitioner filed suit in the Michigan

[ 491 U.S. Page 61]

     Court of Claims raising an essentially identical § 1983 claim. The Civil Service Commission ultimately found in petitioner's favor, ruling that respondents had refused to promote petitioner because of "partisan considerations." App. 46. On the basis of that finding, the state-court judge, acting in both the Circuit Court and the Court of Claims cases, concluded that petitioner had established a violation of the United States Constitution. The judge held that the Circuit Court action was barred under state law but that the Claims Court action could go forward. The judge also ruled that respondents were persons for purposes of § 1983.

The Michigan Court of Appeals vacated the judgment against the Department of State Police, holding that a State is not a person under § 1983, but remanded the case for determination of the possible immunity of the Director of State Police from liability for damages. The Michigan Supreme Court granted discretionary review and affirmed the Court of Appeals in part and reversed in part. Smith v. Department of Pub. Health, 428 Mich. 540, 410 N. W. 2d 749 (1987). The Supreme Court agreed that the State itself is not a person under § 1983, but held that a state official acting in his or her official capacity also is not such a person.

The Michigan Supreme Court's holding that a State is not a person under § 1983 conflicts with a number of state- and federal-court decisions to the contrary.*fn3 We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. 485 U.S. 1005 (1988).

[ 491 U.S. Page 62]

     Prior to Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the question whether a State is a person within the meaning of § 1983 had been answered by this Court in the negative. In Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 187-191 (1961), the Court had held that a municipality was not a person under § 1983. "[T]hat being the case," we reasoned, § 1983 "could not have been intended to include States as parties defendant." Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 452 (1976).

But in Monell, the Court overruled Monroe, holding that a municipality was a person under § 1983. 436 U.S., at 690. Since then, various members of the Court have debated whether a State is a person within the meaning of § 1983, see Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 700-704 (1978) (Brennan, J., concurring); id., at 708, n. 6 (Powell, J., concurring in

[ 491 U.S. Page 63]

     part and dissenting in part), but this Court has never expressly dealt with that issue.*fn4

Some courts, including the Michigan Supreme Court here, have construed our decision in Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332 (1979), as holding by implication that a State is not a person under § 1983. See Smith v. Department of Pub. Health, supra, at 581, 410 N. W. 2d, at 767. See also, e. g., State v. Green, 633 P. 2d 1381, 1382 (Alaska 1981); Woodbridge v. Worcester State Hospital, 384 Mass. 38, 44-45, n. 7, 423 N. E. 2d 782, 786, n. 7 (1981); Edgar v. State, 92 Wash. 2d 217, 221, 595 P. 2d 534, 537 (1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1077 (1980). Quern held that § 1983 does not override a State's Eleventh Amendment immunity, a holding that the concurrence suggested was "patently dicta" to the effect that a State is not a person, 440 U.S., at 350 (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment).

Petitioner filed the present § 1983 actions in Michigan state court, which places the question whether a State is a person under § 1983 squarely before us since the Eleventh Amendment

[ 491 U.S. Page 64]

     does not apply in state courts. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 9, n. 7 (1980). For the reasons that follow, we reaffirm today what we had concluded prior to Monell and what some have considered implicit in Quern: that a State is not a person within the meaning of § 1983.

We observe initially that if a State is a "person" within the meaning of § 1983, the section is to be read as saying that "every person, including a State, who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects . . . ." That would be a decidedly awkward way of expressing an intent to subject the States to liability. At the very least, reading the statute in this way is not so clearly indicated that it provides reason to depart from the often-expressed understanding that "'in common usage, the term 'person' does not include the sovereign, [and] statutes employing the [word] are ordinarily construed to exclude it.'" Wilson v. Omaha Tribe, 442 U.S. 653, 667 (1979) (quoting United States v. Cooper Corp., 312 U.S. 600, 604 (1941)). See also United States v. Mine Workers, 330 U.S. 258, 275 (1947).

This approach is particularly applicable where it is claimed that Congress has subjected the States to liability to which they had not been subject before. In Wilson v. Omaha Tribe, supra, we followed this rule in construing the phrase "white person" contained in 25 U. S. C. § 194, enacted as Act of June 30, 1834, 4 Stat. 729, as not including the "sovereign States of the Union." 442 U.S., at 667. This common usage of the term "person" provides a strong indication that "person" as used in § 1983 likewise does not include a State.*fn5

[ 491 U.S. Page 65]

     The language of § 1983 also falls far short of satisfying the ordinary rule of statutory construction that if Congress intends to alter the "usual constitutional balance between the States and the Federal Government," it must make its intention to do so "unmistakably clear in the language of the statute." Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 242 (1985); see also Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99 (1984). Atascadero was an Eleventh Amendment case, but a similar approach is applied in other contexts. Congress should make its intention "clear and manifest" if it intends to pre-empt the historic powers of the States, Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947), or if it intends to impose a condition on the grant of federal moneys, Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 16 (1981); South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203, 207 (1987). "In traditionally sensitive areas, such as legislation affecting the federal balance, the requirement of clear statement assures that the legislature has in fact faced, and intended to bring into issue, the critical matters involved in the judicial decision." United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 349 (1971).

Our conclusion that a State is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983 is reinforced by Congress' purpose in enacting

[ 491 U.S. Page 66]

     the statute. Congress enacted § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 17 Stat. 13, the precursor to § 1983, shortly after the end of the Civil War "in response to the widespread deprivations of civil rights in the Southern States and the inability or unwillingness of authorities in those States to protect those rights or punish wrongdoers." Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 147 (1988). Although Congress did not establish federal courts as the exclusive forum to remedy these deprivations, ibid., it is plain that "Congress assigned to the federal courts a paramount role" in this endeavor, Patsy v. Board of Regents of Florida, 457 U.S. 496, 503 (1982).

Section 1983 provides a federal forum to remedy many deprivations of civil liberties, but it does not provide a federal forum for litigants who seek a remedy against a State for alleged deprivations of civil liberties. The Eleventh Amendment bars such suits unless the State has waived its immunity, Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transportation, 483 U.S. 468, 472-473 (1987) (plurality opinion), or unless Congress has exercised its undoubted power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to override that immunity. That Congress, in passing § 1983, had no intention to disturb the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity and so to alter the federal-state balance in that respect was made clear in our decision in Quern. Given that a principal purpose behind the enactment of § 1983 was to provide a federal forum for civil rights claims, and that Congress did not provide such a federal forum for civil rights claims against States, we cannot accept petitioner's argument that Congress intended nevertheless to create a cause of action against States to be brought in state courts, which are precisely the courts Congress sought to allow civil rights claimants to avoid through § 1983.

This does not mean, as petitioner suggests, that we think that the scope of the Eleventh Amendment and the scope of § 1983 are not separate issues. Certainly they are. But in deciphering congressional intent as to the scope of § 1983, the

[ 491 U.S. Page 67]

     scope of the Eleventh Amendment is a consideration, and we decline to adopt a reading of § 1983 that disregards it.*fn6

Our conclusion is further supported by our holdings that in enacting § 1983, Congress did not intend to override well-established immunities or defenses under the common law. "One important assumption underlying the Court's decisions in this area is that members of the 42d Congress were familiar with common-law principles, including defenses previously recognized in ordinary tort litigation, and that they likely intended these common-law principles to obtain, absent specific provisions to the contrary." Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 258 (1981). Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 247 (1974); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967); and Tenney v. Brandhove, 341 U.S. 367, 376 (1951), are also to this effect. The doctrine of sovereign immunity was a familiar doctrine at common law. "The principle is elementary that a State cannot be sued in its own courts without its consent." Railroad Co. v. Tennessee, 101 U.S. 337, 339 (1880). It is an "established principle of jurisprudence" that the sovereign cannot be sued in its own courts without its consent. Beers v. Arkansas, 20 How. 527, 529 (1858). We cannot conclude that § 1983 was intended to disregard the well-established immunity of a State from being sued without its consent.*fn7

[ 491 U.S. Page 68]

     The legislative history of § 1983 does not suggest a different conclusion. Petitioner contends that the congressional debates on § 1 of the 1871 Act indicate that § 1983 was intended to extend to the full reach of the Fourteenth Amendment and thereby to provide a remedy "'against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights.'" Brief for Petitioner 16 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S., at 700-701). He refers us to various parts of the vigorous debates accompanying the passage of § 1983 and revealing that it was the failure of the States to take appropriate action that was undoubtedly the motivating force behind § 1983. The inference must be drawn, it is urged, that Congress must have intended to subject the States themselves to liability. But the intent of Congress to provide a remedy for unconstitutional state action does not without more include the sovereign States among those persons against whom § 1983 actions would lie. Construing § 1983 as a remedy for "official violation of federally protected rights" does no more than confirm that the section is directed against state action -- action "under color of" state law. It does not suggest that the State itself was a person that Congress intended to be subject to liability.

Although there were sharp and heated debates, the discussion of § 1 of the bill, which contained the present § 1983, was not extended. And although in other respects the impact on state sovereignty was much talked about, no one suggested that § 1 would subject the States themselves to a damages suit under federal law. Quern, 440 U.S., at 343. There was complaint that § 1 would subject state officers to damages liability, but no suggestion that it would also expose the States themselves. Cong. Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess.,

[ 491 U.S. Page 69366]

     , 385 (1871). We find nothing substantial in the legislative history that leads us to believe that Congress intended that the word "person" in § 1983 included the States of the Union. And surely nothing in the debates rises to the clearly expressed legislative intent necessary to permit that construction.

Likewise, the Act of Feb. 25, 1871, § 2, 16 Stat. 431 (the "Dictionary Act"),*fn8 on which we relied in Monell, supra, at 688-689, does not counsel a contrary conclusion here. As we noted in Quern, that Act, while adopted prior to § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, was adopted after § 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, from which § 1 of the 1871 Act was derived. 440 U.S., at 341, n. 11. Moreover, we disagree with Justice Brennan that at the time the Dictionary Act was passed "the phrase 'bodies politic and corporate' was understood to include the States." Post, at 78. Rather, an examination of authorities of the era suggests that the phrase was used to mean corporations, both private and public (municipal), and not to include the States.*fn9 In our view, the

[ 491 U.S. Page 70]

     Dictionary Act, like § 1983 itself and its legislative history, fails to evidence a clear congressional intent that States be held liable.

Finally, Monell itself is not to the contrary. True, prior to Monell the Court had reasoned that if municipalities were not persons then surely States also were not. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S., at 452. And Monell overruled Monroe, undercutting that logic. But it does not follow that if municipalities are persons then so are States. States are protected by the Eleventh Amendment while municipalities are not, Monell, 436 U.S., at 690, n. 54, and we consequently limited our holding in Monell "to local government units which are not considered part of the State for Eleventh Amendment purposes," ibid. Conversely, our holding here does not cast any doubt on Monell, and applies only to States or governmental entities that are considered "arms of the State" for Eleventh Amendment purposes. See, e. g., Mt. Healthy Bd. of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977).

Petitioner asserts, alternatively, that state officials should be considered "persons" under § 1983 even though acting in their official capacities. In this case, petitioner named as defendant not only the Michigan Department of State Police but also the Director of State Police in his official capacity.

[ 491 U.S. Page 71]

     Obviously, state officials literally are persons. But a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office. Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471 (1985). As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself. See, e. g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-166 (1985); Monell, supra, at 690, n. 55. We see no reason to adopt a different rule in the present context, particularly when such a rule would allow petitioner to circumvent congressional intent by a mere pleading device.*fn10

We hold that neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are "persons" under § 1983. The judgment of the ...


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