Federal Law and Supreme Court Cases apply to State Court Cases ARIZONA?
U.S. Supreme Court
HOWLETT v. ROSE, 496 U.S. 356 (1990)496 U.S. 356 HOWLETT, A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HOWLETT, HIS MOTHER, NATURAL GUARDIAN,
AND NEXT FRIEND v. ROSE, AS SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS FOR
PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA, ET AL. CERTIORARI TO THE DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL OF FLORIDA, SECOND DISTRICT
Argued March 20, 1990
Decided June 11, 1990
State as well as federal courts have jurisdiction over suits brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, which creates a remedy for violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law. Petitioner, a former high school student, filed a 1983 suit in a Florida Circuit Court seeking damages and injunctive relief against, inter alios, the local school board, alleging, among other things, that his federal constitutional rights were violated when his car was searched on school premises in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Federal Constitution and that he was suspended from classes without due process. The court held that it lacked jurisdiction over the board and dismissed the complaint against the board with prejudice, citing Hill v. Department of Corrections, 513 So.2d 129, in which the State Supreme Court ruled that Florida's statutory waiver of sovereign immunity applied only to state-court tort actions and conferred a blanket immunity on state governmental entities from federal civil rights actions under 1983 in state court. The District Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal, holding that the availability of sovereign immunity in a 1983 action brought in state court is a matter of state law, and that, under Hill, the statutory waiver of immunity did not apply.
A state-law "sovereign immunity" defense is not available to a school board in a 1983 action brought in a state court that otherwise has jurisdiction when such defense would not be available if the action were brought in a federal forum. Pp. 361-383.
- (a) Since the defendant in Hill was a state agency protected
from suit in federal court by the Eleventh Amendment, see Quern v.
U.S. 332, 341
, and thus was not a "person" within the meaning of 1983, see Will
v. Michigan Dept. of State Police,
, Hill's actual disposition, if not its language and reasoning,
comports with Will, which established that the State and arms of the
State, which have traditionally enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity, are
not subject to suit under 1983 in either federal or state court.
However, in construing Hill to extend absolute immunity not only to the
State and its arms but also to
U.S. 356, 357]
municipalities, counties, and school districts which might
otherwise be subject to suit under 1983 in federal court, the District
Court of Appeal's decision raises the concern that that court may be
evading federal law and discriminating against federal causes of action.
The adequacy of the state-law ground to support a judgment precluding
litigation of the federal claim is a federal question, which this Court
reviews de novo. See, e. g., James v. Kentucky,
U.S. 341, 348
-349. Pp. 361-366.
- (b) Under the Supremacy Clause, state courts have a concurrent duty
to enforce federal law according to their regular modes of procedure.
See, e. g., Claflin v. Houseman,
U.S. 130, 136
-137. Such a court may not deny a federal right, when the parties
and controversy are properly before it, in the absence of a "valid
excuse." Douglas v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co.,
U.S. 377, 387
-389. An excuse that is inconsistent with or violates federal law is
not a valid excuse: The Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to
dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its
content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source.
See, e. g., Mondou v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co.,
U.S. 1, 57
. A valid excuse may exist when a state court refuses jurisdiction
because of a neutral state rule of judicial administration, see, e. g.,
Douglas, supra, unless that rule is pre-empted by federal law, see
Felder v. Casey,
. Pp. 367-375.
- (c) The District Court of Appeal's refusal to entertain 1983
actions against state entities such as school boards violates the
Supremacy Clause. If that refusal amounts to the adoption of a
substantive rule of decision that state agencies are not subject to
liability under 1983, it directly violates federal law, which makes
governmental defendants that are not arms of the State liable for their
constitutional violations under 1983. See, e. g., St. Louis v.
U.S. 112, 121
-122. Conduct by persons acting under color of state law which is
wrongful under 1983 cannot be immunized by state law even though the
federal cause of action is being asserted in state court. See, e. g.,
Martinez v. California,
U.S. 277, 284
, and n. 8. If, on the other hand, the District Court of Appeal's
decision meant that 1983 claims are excluded from the category of tort
claims that the Circuit Court could hear against a school board, it was
no less violative of federal law. Cf. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v.
U.S. 199, 201
. The State has constituted the Circuit Court as a court of general
jurisdiction, and it entertains state common-law and statutory claims
against state entities in a variety of their capacities, as well as 1983
actions against individual state officials. A state policy that
declines jurisdiction over one discrete category of 1983 claims, yet
permits similar state-law actions against state defendants, can be based
only on the rationale that such defendants should not be held liable
for 1983 violations. Thus, there is no neutral or valid excuse for the
refusal to hear suits like petitioner's. Pp. 375-381.
U.S. 356, 358]
- (d) There is no merit to respondents' argument that a federal court
has no power to compel a state court to entertain a claim over which it
lacks jurisdiction under state law. The fact that a rule is denominated
jurisdictional does not provide a state court an excuse to avoid the
obligation to enforce federal law if the rule does not reflect the
concerns of power over the person and competence over the subject matter
that jurisdictional rules are designed to protect. Also meritless is
respondents' contention that sovereign immunity is not a creature of
state law, but of long-established legal principles that Congress did
not intend to abrogate in enacting 1983. Congress did take common-law
principles into account in, e. g., excluding States and arms of the
State from the definition of "person," but individual States may not
rely on their own common-law heritage to exempt from federal liability
persons that Congress subjected to liability. Pp. 381-383.
Gardner W. Beckett, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Steven R. Shapiro and Steven H. Steinglass.
Charles Rothfeld argued the cause for respondents. On the brief was Bruce P. Taylor. *
[ Footnote * ] Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the National Association of Counties et al. by Benna Ruth Solomon and Charles Rothfeld; and for the Washington Legal Foundation et al. by Daniel J. Popeo and Richard A. Samp.
JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Rev. Stat. 1979, now codified as 42 U.S.C. 1983, creates a remedy for violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law. 1 State courts as well as federal courts have jurisdiction over 1983 cases. The question in [496 U.S. 356, 359] this case is whether a state-law defense of "sovereign immunity" is available to a school board otherwise subject to suit in a Florida court even though such a defense would not be available if the action had been brought in a federal forum.
Petitioner, a former high school student, filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Pinellas County, Florida, naming the School Board of Pinellas County and three school officials as defendants. He alleged that an assistant principal made an illegal search of his car while it was parked on school premises and that he was wrongfully suspended from regular classes for five days. Contending that the search and subsequent suspension violated rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Federal Constitution and under similar provisions of the State Constitution, he prayed for damages and an order expunging any reference to the suspension from the school records.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on various grounds, including failure to exhaust state administrative remedies. 2 The school board also contended that the court was without jurisdiction to hear the federal claims - but not the state claims - because the Florida waiver-of-sovereign-immunity statute did not extend to claims based on 1983. App. 13-14. The Circuit Court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, citing a state case requiring state-law challenges to be first presented to the District Court of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court decision in Hill v. Department of Corrections, 513 So.2d 129 (1987). App. 19.
The District Court of Appeal for the Second District affirmed the dismissal of petitioner's 1983 claim against the [496 U.S. 356, 360] school board. 3 It held that the availability of sovereign immunity in a 1983 action brought in state court is a matter of state law, and that Florida's statutory waiver of sovereign immunity did not apply to 1983 cases. The court rejected the argument that whether a State has maintained its sovereign immunity from a 1983 suit in its state courts is a question of federal law. It wrote:
- "[W]hen a section 1983 action is brought in state court, the
sole question to be decided on the basis of state law is whether the
state has waived its common law sovereign immunity to the extent
necessary to allow a section 1983 action in state court. Hill holds that
Florida has not so waived its sovereign immunity. We therefore do not
reach appellant's second issue in this case, i. e., whether under
federal law a Florida school board is immune from a section 1983 law.
There is no question under Florida law that agencies of the state,
including school boards and municipalities, are the beneficiaries of
sovereign immunity." 537 So.2d 706, 708 (1989) (emphasis in original).
The question in this case stems from the Florida Supreme Court's decision in the Hill case. In that case, the plaintiff sought damages for common-law negligence and false imprisonment and violations of his constitutional rights under 1983 from the Florida Department of Corrections for the conduct of one of its probation supervisors. Hill argued that the department was a "person" under 1983, that it was responsible for the actions of its supervisor, and that it was subject to suit in the Circuit Court pursuant to the Florida waiver of sovereign immunity. Fla. Stat. 768.28 (1989). 4 That statute provides that the State and its subdivisions, including municipalities and school boards, 768.28(2), are subject to suit in circuit court for tort claims "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances," 768.28(5). 5 Although the terms of the waiver [496 U.S. 356, 362] could be read narrowly to restrict liability to claims against the State in its proprietary capacity, the Florida courts have rejected that interpretation. 6 In 16 cases arising under Florida statutory and common law, the State Supreme Court has held that the State may be sued in respondent superior for the violation of nondiscretionary duties in the exercise of governmental authority. The Florida courts thus have entertained suits against state agencies for the violation of nondiscretionary duties committed in the performance of various governmental activities, including the roadside stop and arrest of an individual driving with an expired inspection sticker, 7 the negligent maintenance by city employees of a [496 U.S. 356, 363] storm sewer system, 8 the failure of a state caseworker to detect and prevent child abuse, 9 the negligent maintenance of county swimming pools and failure to warn or correct known dangerous conditions, 10 and the failure to protect a prison inmate from other inmates known to be dangerous. 11 Hill argued [496 U.S. 356, 364] that just as the State could be joined in an action for the violation of established state common-law or statutory duties, it was also subject to suit for violations of its nondiscretionary duty not to violate the Constitution. See Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 649 -650 (1980).
The trial court dismissed Hill's 1983 claim but entered judgment on the jury's verdict in his favor on the common-law claims. On appeal, the District Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal of the 1983 claim and reversed the judgment on the common-law claim. It also certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether Florida's statutory waiver of sovereign immunity permitted suits against the State and its agencies under 1983. Department of Corrections v. Hill, 490 So.2d 118 (1986).
The State Supreme Court answered that question in the negative. Hill v. Department of Corrections, 513 So.2d 129 (1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1064 (1988). Without citing any of its own sovereign immunity cases and relying solely on analogy to the Eleventh Amendment and decisions of the courts of other States, the State Supreme Court held that the Florida statute conferred a blanket immunity on governmental entities from federal civil rights actions under 1983. 513 So.2d, at 133. It stated: "While Florida is at liberty to waive its immunity from section 1983 actions, it has not done so. The recovery ceilings in section 768.28 were intended to waive sovereign immunity for state tort actions, not federal civil rights actions commenced under section 1983." Ibid. The court thus affirmed the dismissal of the 1983 claim but reversed the Court of Appeal's judgment on [496 U.S. 356, 365] the common-law claim and allowed the judgment for Hill on that claim to stand.
On its facts, the disposition of the Hill case would appear to be unexceptional. The defendant in Hill was a state agency protected from suit in a federal court by the Eleventh Amendment. See Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 341 (1979) ( 1983 does not "override the traditional sovereign immunity of the States"). 12 As we held last Term in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989), an entity with Eleventh Amendment immunity is not a "person" within the meaning of 1983. The anomaly identified by the State Supreme Court, and by the various state courts which it cited, 13 that a State might be forced to entertain in its own courts suits from which it was immune in federal court, is thus fully met by our decision in Will. Will establishes that the State and arms of the State, which have traditionally enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity, are not subject to suit under 1983 in either federal court or state court.
The language and reasoning of the State Supreme Court, if not its precise holding, however, went further. That further step was completed by the District Court of Appeal in this case. As that court construed the law, Florida has extended [496 U.S. 356, 366] absolute immunity from suit not only to the State and its arms but also to municipalities, counties, and school districts that might otherwise be subject to suit under 1983 in federal court. That holding raises the concern that the state court may be evading federal law and discriminating against federal causes of action. The adequacy of the state-law ground to support a judgment precluding litigation of the federal claim is itself a federal question which we review de novo. See Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578, 587 (1988); James v. Kentucky, 466 U.S. 341, 348 -349 (1984); Hathorn v. Lovorn, 457 U.S. 255, 263 (1982); Barr v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 146, 149 (1964); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 455 (1958); Rogers v. Alabama, 192 U.S. 226, 230 -231 (1904); Hill, The Inadequate State Ground, 65 Colum. L. Rev. 943, 954-957 (1965). Whether the constitutional rights asserted by petitioner were "`given due recognition by the [Court of Appeal] is a question as to which the [petitioner is] entitled to invoke our judgment, and this [he has] done in the appropriate way. It therefore is within our province to inquire not only whether the right was denied in express terms, but also whether it was denied in substance and effect, as by putting forward nonfederal grounds of decision that were without any fair or substantial support.'" Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 318 -319 (1958) (quoting Ward v. Love County Board of Comm'rs, 253 U.S. 17, 22 (1920)). 14 [496 U.S. 356, 367]
Federal law is enforceable in state courts not because Congress has determined that federal courts would otherwise be burdened or that state courts might provide a more convenient forum - although both might well be true - but because the Constitution and laws passed pursuant to it are as much laws in the States as laws passed by the state legislature. The Supremacy Clause makes those laws "the supreme Law of the Land," and charges state courts with a coordinate responsibility to enforce that law according to their regular modes of procedure. "The laws of the United States are laws in the several States, and just as much binding on the citizens and courts thereof as the State laws are. . . . The two together form one system of jurisprudence, which constitutes the law of the land for the State; and the courts of the two jurisdictions are not foreign to each other, nor to be treated by each other as such, but as courts of the same country, having jurisdiction partly different and partly concurrent." Claflin v. Houseman, 93 U.S. 130, 136 -137 (1876); see Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211, 222 (1916) ("[T]he governments and courts of both the Nation and the several States [are not] strange or foreign to each other in the broad sense of that word, but [are] all courts of a common country, all within the orbit of their lawful authority being charged with the duty to safeguard and enforce the right of every citizen without reference to the [496 U.S. 356, 368] particular exercise of governmental power from which the right may have arisen, if only the authority to enforce such right comes generally within the scope of the jurisdiction conferred by the government creating them"); Hart, The Relations Between State and Federal Law, 54 Colum. L. Rev. 489 (1954) ("The law which governs daily living in the United States is a single system of law"); see also Tafflin v. Levitt, 493 U.S. 455, 469 (1990) (SCALIA, J., concurring). 15 As Alexander Hamilton expressed the principle in a classic passage:
- "[I]n every case in which they were not expressly excluded by
the future acts of the national legislature, [state courts] will of
course take cognizance of the causes to which those acts may give birth.
This I infer from the nature of judiciary power, and from the general
genius of the system. The judiciary power of every government looks
beyond its own local or municipal laws, and in civil cases lays hold of
all subjects of litigation between parties within its jurisdiction,
though the causes of dispute are relative to the laws of the most
distant part of the globe.
U.S. 356, 369]
Those of Japan, not less than of New York, may furnish the
objects of legal discussion to our courts. When in addition to this we
consider the State governments and the national governments, as they
truly are, in the light of kindred systems, and as parts of ONE WHOLE,
the inference seems to be conclusive, that the State courts would have a
concurrent jurisdiction in all cases arising under the laws of the
Union, where it was not expressly prohibited." The Federalist No. 82, p.
132 (E. Bourne ed. 1947) (emphasis added).
2. An excuse that is inconsistent with or violates federal law is not a valid excuse: The Supremacy Clause forbids state courts to dissociate themselves from federal law because of disagreement with its content or a refusal to recognize the superior authority of its source. "The suggestion that the act of Congress is not in harmony with the policy of the State, and therefore that the courts of the State are free to decline jurisdiction, is quite inadmissible because it presupposes what in legal contemplation does not exist. When Congress, in the exertion of the power confided to it by the Constitution, adopted that act, it spoke for all the people and all the States, and thereby established a policy for all. That policy is as much the policy of [the State] as if the act had emanated from its own legislature, and should be respected accordingly in the courts of the State." Mondou, 223 U.S., at 57 ; see Miles v. Illinois Central R. Co., 315 U.S. 698, 703 -704 [496 U.S. 356, 372] (1942) ("By virtue of the Constitution, the courts of the several states must remain open to such litigants on the same basis that they are open to litigants with causes of action springing from a different source"); McKnett v. St. Louis & San Francisco R. Co., 292 U.S. 230, 233 -234 (1934); Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211 (1916); cf. FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U.S. 742, 776 , n. 1 (1982) (opinion of O'CONNOR, J.) (State may not discriminate against federal causes of action).
3. When a state court refuses jurisdiction because of a neutral state rule regarding the administration of the courts, we must act with utmost caution before deciding that it is obligated to entertain the claim. See Missouri ex rel. Southern R. Co. v. Mayfield, 340 U.S. 1 (1950); Georgia Rail Road & Banking Co. v. Musgrove, 335 U.S. 900 (1949) (per curiam); Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117 (1945); Douglas v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 279 U.S. 377 (1929). The requirement that a state court of competent jurisdiction treat federal law as the law of the land does not necessarily include within it a requirement that the State create a court competent to hear the case in which the federal claim is presented. The general rule, "bottomed deeply in belief in the importance of state control of state judicial procedure, is that federal law takes the state courts as it finds them." Hart, 54 Colum. L. Rev., at 508; see also Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 33 (1984) (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting); FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U.S., at 774 (opinion of Powell, J.). The States thus have great latitude to establish the structure and jurisdiction of their own courts. See Herb, supra; Bombolis, supra; Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22, 30 -31 (1880). In addition, States may apply their own neutral procedural rules to federal claims, unless those rules are pre-empted by federal law. See Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988); James v. Kentucky, 466 U.S., at 348 .
These principles are fundamental to a system of federalism in which the state courts share responsibility for the application [496 U.S. 356, 373] and enforcement of federal law. In Mondou, for example, we held that rights under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) "may be enforced, as of right, in the courts of the States when their jurisdiction, as prescribed by local laws, is adequate to the occasion." 223 U.S., at 59 . The Connecticut courts had declined cognizance of FELA actions because the policy of the federal Act was "not in accord with the policy of the State," and it was "inconvenient and confusing" to apply federal law. Id., at 55-56. We noted, as a matter of some significance, that Congress had not attempted "to enlarge or regulate the jurisdiction of state courts or to control or affect their modes of procedure," id., at 56, and found from the fact that the state court was a court of general jurisdiction with cognizance over wrongful-death actions that the court's jurisdiction was "appropriate to the occasion," id., at 57. "The existence of the jurisdiction creat[ed] an implication of duty to exercise it," id., at 58, which could not be overcome by disagreement with the policy of the federal Act, id., at 57.
In McKnett, the state court refused to exercise jurisdiction over a FELA cause of action against a foreign corporation for an injury suffered in another State. We held "[w]hile Congress has not attempted to compel states to provide courts for the enforcement of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the Federal Constitution prohibits state courts of general jurisdiction from refusing to do so solely because the suit is brought under a federal law." 292 U.S., at 233 -234 (citation omitted). Because the state court had "general jurisdiction of the class of actions to which that here brought belongs, in cases between litigants situated like those in the case at bar," id., at 232, the refusal to hear the FELA action constituted discrimination against rights arising under federal laws, id., at 234, in violation of the Supremacy Clause.
We unanimously reaffirmed these principles in Testa v. Katt. We held that the Rhode Island courts could not decline jurisdiction over treble damages claims under the federal [496 U.S. 356, 374] Emergency Price Control Act when their jurisdiction was otherwise "adequate and appropriate under established local law." 330 U.S., at 394 . The Rhode Island court had distinguished our decisions in McKnett and Mondou on the grounds that the federal Act was a "penal statute," which would not have been enforceable under the Full Faith and Credit Clause if passed by another State. We rejected that argument. We observed that the Rhode Island court enforced the "same type of claim" arising under state law and claims for double damages under federal law. 330 U.S., at 394 . We therefore concluded that the court had "jurisdiction adequate and appropriate under established local law to adjudicate this action." Ibid. 18 The court could not decline to exercise this jurisdiction to enforce federal law by labeling it "penal." The policy of the federal Act was to be considered "the prevailing policy in every state" which the state court could not refuse to enforce "`because of conceptions of impolicy or want of wisdom on the part of Congress in having called into play its lawful powers.'" Id., at 393 (quoting Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S., at 222 ).
On only three occasions have we found a valid excuse for a state court's refusal to entertain a federal cause of action. Each of them involved a neutral rule of judicial administration. In Douglas v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 279 U.S. 377 (1929), the state statute permitted discretionary dismissal of both federal and state claims where neither the plaintiff nor the defendant was a resident of the forum State. 19 In Herb, the City Court denied jurisdiction over a [496 U.S. 356, 375] FELA action on the grounds that the cause of action arose outside its territorial jurisdiction. Although the state court was not free to dismiss the federal claim "because it is a federal one," we found no evidence that the state courts "construed the state jurisdiction and venue laws in a discriminatory fashion." 324 U.S., at 123 . Finally, in Mayfield, we held that a state court could apply the doctrine of forum non conveniens to bar adjudication of a FELA case if the State "enforces its policy impartially so as not to involve a discrimination against Employers' Liability Act suits." 340 U.S., at 4 (citation omitted).
The parties disagree as to the proper characterization of the District Court of Appeal's decision. Petitioner argues that the court adopted a substantive rule of decision that state agencies are not subject to liability under 1983. Respondents, stressing the court's language that it had not "opened its own courts for federal actions against the state," 537 So.2d, at 708, argue that the case simply involves the court's refusal to take cognizance of 1983 actions against state defendants. We conclude that whether the question is framed in pre-emption terms, as petitioner would have it, or in the obligation to assume jurisdiction over a "federal" cause of action, as respondents would have it, the Florida court's refusal to entertain one discrete category of 1983 claims, when the court entertains similar state-law actions against state defendants, violates the Supremacy Clause.
If the District Court of Appeal meant to hold that governmental entities subject to 1983 liability enjoy an immunity over and above those already provided in 1983, that holding directly violates federal law. The elements of, and the defenses to, a federal cause of action are defined by federal law. See, e. g., Monessen Southwestern R. Co. v. Morgan, [496 U.S. 356, 376] 486 U.S. 330, 335 (1988); Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co. v. Kuhn, 284 U.S. 44, 46 -47 (1931). A State may not, by statute or common law, create a cause of action under 1983 against an entity whom Congress has not subjected to liability. Moor v. County of Alameda, 411 U.S. 693, 698 -710 (1973). Since this Court has construed the word "person" in 1983 to exclude States, neither a federal court nor a state court may entertain a 1983 action against such a defendant. Conversely, since the Court has held that municipal corporations and similar governmental entities are "persons," see Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 663 (1978); cf. Will, 491 U.S., at 69 , n. 9; Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 -281 (1977), a state court entertaining a 1983 action must adhere to that interpretation. "Municipal defenses - including an assertion of sovereign immunity - to a federal right of action are, of course, controlled by federal law." Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S., at 647 , n. 30. "By including municipalities within the class of `persons' subject to liability for violations of the Federal Constitution and laws, Congress - the supreme sovereign on matters of federal law - abolished whatever vestige of the State's sovereign immunity the municipality possessed." Id., at 647-648 (footnote omitted).
In Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980), we unanimously concluded that a California statute that purported to immunize public entities and public employees from any liability for parole release decisions was pre-empted by 1983 "even though the federal cause of action [was] being asserted in the state courts." Id., at 284. We explained:
- "`Conduct by persons acting under color of state law which is
wrongful under 42 U.S.C. 1983 or 1985(3) cannot be immunized by state
law. A construction of the federal statute which permitted a state
immunity defense to have controlling effect would transmute a basic
guarantee into an illusory promise; and the supremacy clause of the
Constitution insures that the proper construction
U.S. 356, 377]
may be enforced. See McLaughlin v. Tilendis, 398 F.2d 287, 290
(7th Cir. 1968). The immunity claim raises a question of federal law.'
Hampton v. Chicago, 484 F.2d 602, 607 (CA7 1973), cert. denied,
." Id., at 284, n. 8.
If, on the other hand, the District Court of Appeal meant that 1983 claims are excluded from the category of tort claims that the Circuit Court could hear against a school board, its holding was no less violative of federal law. Cf. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Burnette, 239 U.S. 199, 201 (1915). This case does not present the questions whether Congress can require the States to create a forum with the capacity to enforce federal statutory rights or to authorize service of process on parties who would not otherwise be subject to the court's jurisdiction. 20 The State of Florida has constituted the Circuit Court for Pinellas County as a court of general jurisdiction. 21 It exercises jurisdiction over tort claims by private citizens against state entities (including school boards), of the size and type of petitioner's claim here, and it can enter judgment against them. That court also exercises jurisdiction over 1983 actions against individual officers 22 and is fully competent to provide the remedies the federal [496 U.S. 356, 379] statute requires. Cf. Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc., 396 U.S. 229, 238 (1969). Petitioner has complied with all the state-law procedures for invoking the jurisdiction of that court.
The mere facts, as argued by respondents' amici, that state common law and statutory law do not make unlawful the precise conduct that 1983 addresses and that 1983 actions "are more likely to be frivolous than are other suits," Brief for Washington Legal Foundation et al. as Amici Curiae 17, clearly cannot provide sufficient justification for the State's refusal to entertain such actions. These reasons have never been asserted by the State and are not asserted by the school board. More importantly, they are not the kind of neutral policy that could be a "valid excuse" for the state court's refusal to entertain federal actions. To the extent that the Florida rule is based upon the judgment that parties who are otherwise subject to the jurisdiction of the court should not be held liable for activity that would not subject them to liability under state law, we understand that to be only another way of saying that the court disagrees with the content of federal law. Sovereign immunity in Florida turns on the nature of the claim - whether the duty allegedly breached is discretionary - not on the subject matter of the dispute. There is no question that the Circuit Court, which entertains state common-law and statutory claims against state entities in a variety of their capacities, ranging from law enforcement to schooling to the protection of individuals using parking lots, 23 has jurisdiction over the subject of this suit. That court cannot reject petitioner's 1983 claim [496 U.S. 356, 380] because it has chosen, for substantive policy reasons, not to adjudicate other claims which might also render the school board liable. The federal law is law in the State as much as laws passed by the state legislature. A "state court cannot `refuse to enforce the right arising from the law of the United States because of conceptions of impolicy or want of wisdom on the part of Congress in having called into play its lawful powers.'" Testa, 330 U.S., at 393 (quoting Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S., at 222 ).
The argument by amici that suits predicated on federal law are more likely to be frivolous and have less of an entitlement to the State's limited judicial resources warrants little response. A State may adopt neutral procedural rules to discourage frivolous litigation of all kinds, as long as those rules are not pre-empted by a valid federal law. A State may not, however, relieve congestion in its courts by declaring a whole category of federal claims to be frivolous. Until it has been proved that the claim has no merit, that judgment is not up to the States to make.
Respondents have offered no neutral or valid excuse for the Circuit Court's refusal to hear 1983 actions against state entities. The Circuit Court would have had jurisdiction if the defendant were an individual officer and the action were based on 1983. It would also have had jurisdiction over the defendant school board if the action were based on established state common law or statutory law. A state policy that permits actions against state agencies for the failure of their officials to adequately police a parking lot and for the negligence of such officers in arresting a person on a roadside, but yet declines jurisdiction over federal actions for constitutional violations by the same persons can be based only on the rationale that such persons should not be held liable for 1983 violations in the courts of the State. That reason, whether presented in terms of direct disagreement with substantive federal law or simple refusal to take cognizance of [496 U.S. 356, 381] the federal cause of action, flatly violates the Supremacy Clause.
Respondents offer two final arguments in support of the judgment of the District Court of Appeal. 24 First, at oral argument - but not in their brief - they argued that a federal court has no power to compel a state court to entertain a claim over which the state court has no jurisdiction as a matter of state law. Second, respondents argue that sovereign immunity is not a creature of state law, but of long-established legal principles which have not been set aside by 1983. We find no merit in these contentions.
The fact that a rule is denominated jurisdictional does not provide a court an excuse to avoid the obligation to enforce federal law if the rule does not reflect the concerns of power over the person and competence over the subject matter that jurisdictional rules are designed to protect. It is settled that a court of otherwise competent jurisdiction may not avoid its parallel obligation under the Full Faith and Credit Clause to entertain another State's cause of action by invocation of the term "jurisdiction." See First Nat. Bank of Chicago v. United Air Lines, Inc., 342 U.S. 396 (1952); Hughes v. Fetter, 341 U.S. 609, 611 (1951); Broderick v. Rosner, 294 U.S. 629, 642 -643 (1935); Kenney v. Supreme Lodge, Loyal Order of Moose, 252 U.S. 411 (1920). A State cannot "escape this constitutional obligation to enforce the rights and duties validly created under the laws of other states by the simple device of removing jurisdiction from courts otherwise competent." [496 U.S. 356, 382] Hughes, 341 U.S., at 611 . 25 Similarly, a State may not evade the strictures of the Privileges and Immunities Clause by denying jurisdiction to a court otherwise competent. See Angel v. Bullington, 330 U.S. 183, 188 -189 (1947); Douglas v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co., 279 U.S. 377 (1929); cf. White v. Hart, 13 Wall. 646, 653-654 (1872) (Contract Clause). As our discussion of Testa, McKnett, and Mondou establishes, the same is true with respect to a state court's obligations under the Supremacy Clause. 26 The force [496 U.S. 356, 383] of the Supremacy Clause is not so weak that it can be evaded by mere mention of the word "jurisdiction." Indeed, if this argument had merit, the State of Wisconsin could overrule our decision in Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131 (1988), by simply amending its notice-of-claim statute to provide that no state court would have jurisdiction of an action in which the plaintiff failed to give the required notice. The Supremacy Clause requires more than that.
Respondents' argument that Congress did not intend to abrogate an immunity with an ancient common-law heritage is the same argument, in slightly different dress, as the argument that we have already rejected that the State are free to redefine the federal cause of action. Congress did take common-law principles into account in providing certain forms of absolute and qualified immunity, see Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967), and in excluding States and arms of the State from the definition of person, see Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989); Ngiraingas v. Sanchez, 495 U.S. 182 (1990); see also Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332 (1979). But as to persons that Congress subjected to liability, individual States may not exempt such persons from federal liability by relying on their own common-law heritage. If we were to uphold the immunity claim in this case, every State would have the same opportunity to extend the mantle of sovereign immunity to "persons" who would otherwise be subject to 1983 liability. States would then be free to nullify for their own people the legislative decisions that Congress has made on behalf of all the People.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
- It is so ordered.
Footnotes[ Footnote 1 ] Title 42 U.S.C. 1983 provides in relevant part:
- "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance,
regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . ., subjects, or causes to
be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within
the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges,
or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to
the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper
proceeding for redress."
[ Footnote 3 ] The parties did not brief, and the District Court of Appeal did not address, petitioner's claims under the State Constitution or against the individual defendants. See Brief for Petitioner 4, n. 5; Brief for Respondents 1-2.
[ Footnote 4 ] The statute expanded the protection of sovereign immunity in some respects and narrowed it in others. See Cauley v. Jacksonville, 403 So.2d 379 (Fla. 1981). Before the passage of 768.28, the doctrine had been cast into serious doubt. We have previously noted that Florida led the States in the abrogation of municipal immunity:
- "The seminal opinion of the Florida Supreme Court in Hargrove v.
Town of Cocoa Beach, 96 So.2d 130 (1957), has spawned `a minor
avalanche of decisions repudiating municipal immunity,' which, in
conjunction with legislative abrogation of sovereign immunity, has
resulted in the consequence that only a handful of States still cling to
the old common-law rule of immunity for governmental functions." Owen
v. City of Independence,
U.S. 622, 646
, n. 28 (1980) (citation omitted).
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