Under some circumstances, sovereign immunity protects the federal, state (including local), and tribal governments from lawsuits which would cause those governments to pay out money, property, or other goods from the governmental treasury. The Eleventh Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits suits against state governments. Sovereign immunity for the federal government is not found in the Constitution but has been consistently upheld by the courts. The US Supreme Court has also upheld sovereign immunity for tribal governments.

Why Sovereign Immunity?

Sovereign Immunity comes from our English roots where the “King could do no wrong.” The theory behind granting immunity to governments comes from the notion that taking resources from the government is the same as taking them away from the people.

Is Sovereign Immunity Absolute?

No. Many courts have put limits on Sovereign Immunity. You may have a suit against the government:

  • When a government official has acted in a manner exceeding his governmental capacity and paying damages would not diminish the Governmental Treasury
  • Where the government has expressly waived its immunity
    • For instance, the Federal Tort Claims Act provides a limited waiver of the federal government’s sovereign immunity when its employees are negligent and operating within the scope of their employment. If a government employee is negligent, you may be able to sue the government under this Act.

What Should You Do if You Have a Suit against the Government?

There are many nuances and subtleties to Sovereign Immunity. To find out whether you can sue a governmental body it would be advantageous to consult a government lawyer.