Lewis v. Alabama
About the Case
In 2015, the Birmingham City Council voted to raise the local minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. In response, state legislators adopted a law requiring the entire state to use the federal minimum wage, effectively overriding the decision of the duly elected city council in Birmingham to provide workers in the city with a higher minimum wage. The Alabama NAACP, along with members of the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus and individual Birmingham residents, sued the state for intentionally discriminating against black voters under the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
A federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit, holding that Alabama and its officials had immunity from a VRA challenge under the 11th Amendment grant of “sovereign immunity.” The court’s decision ignored the clear intent by Congress to override state sovereign immunity under the VRA, unanimous decades-long precedent holding that the VRA overrides sovereign immunity, and over one hundred years of Supreme Court precedent allowing suits against state officials regardless of sovereign immunity. The plaintiffs have appealed the court’s decision to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
What’s At Stake
While the 11th Amendment’s grant of sovereign immunity typically shields states from lawsuits brought by private citizens, there are two important exceptions, recognized by the Supreme Court, under which a state may be sued for violating a citizen’s federal constitutional rights. The district court ignored both of these exceptions, which are vital to citizens’ ability to vindicate their rights against unlawful state action.
First, the 14th and 15th Amendments (adopted after the 11th Amendment) expanded federal power to ensure states complied with the federal Constitution, particularly its guarantees of nondiscrimination. These amendments, passed after the Civil War to abolish slavery and grant citizens equal protection under the law and the right to vote regardless of race, gave Congress the power to override state sovereign immunity by enacting statutes that provide for private lawsuits against the states to vindicate those rights. It has long been recognized that Congress created a right for private plaintiffs to sue states in federal court under Section 2 of the VRA and this right has played a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of the VRA as an instrument for eliminating racial discrimination in voting.
Second, even where there is sovereign immunity, the Court recognized over a hundred years ago, in a case called Ex Parte Young, that individuals may sue state officials to prevent them from enforcing state laws that violate the federal constitution. The Ex Parte Young doctrine has been critical in allowing private plaintiffs to vindicate their constitutional rights and protect themselves from unlawful and unconstitutional state action. After Shelby County invalidated the “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the VRA - which subjected states and other jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting laws to federal preclearance - Section 2 is the primary vehicle available for citizens to challenge states and prevent state officials from enforcing racially discriminatory voting laws.
The district court’s failure to recognize the VRA’s overriding of sovereign immunity and its further failure to correctly apply the Ex Parte Young doctrine directly contradicts Supreme Court precedent and would effectively close the courthouse door on private suits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Campaign Legal Center submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiffs, urging the Eleventh Circuit to correct these errors.