Understanding the 11th, 21st & 27th Constitutional Amendments

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

While the 11th, 21st, and 27th amendments of the Constitution aren't related to the same issues, they each have their own unique stories. In this lesson, we'll discuss their history, their purpose, and what they mean today.

The 11th Amendment

The 11th amendment was ratified in 1795 and became the first amendment ratified after the Bill of Rights. It's a short amendment, but one that has historically been interpreted at least four different ways. Originally, it was a reaction to clarify the legality of different states' involvement in lawsuits. In 1793, a South Carolina citizen, Alexander Chisholm, sued the state of Georgia to get payment for supplies he had sold Georgia in the Civil War.

The Supreme Court ruled on the case based on Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says the Supreme Court can rule on disputes between states and citizens of other states. When the Court found in favor of Chisholm, Congress quickly saw a potential problem: they didn't want federal lawsuits being brought against states without the consent of the state. So, the 11th amendment was crafted to establish states' sovereign immunity, and it was put up for ratification.

After some debate in Congress, the final version met little resistance. The ratified version reads: 'The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.'

In the more than 200 years since ratification, this amendment has been interpreted to mean (with regard to federal law):

  • Only citizens of a State can sue that State,
  • No citizens can sue a State, without that State's consent,
  • Only non-citizens of a State can sue a State, and
  • No State can be sued in federal court, unless Congress takes away the immunity from that state.

While the 11th amendment doesn't come into play very often, the Supreme Court has found that state officials aren't protected from being sued under the 11th amendment. Municipalities within a state (city, county, etc.) can be sued, states can be sued if they consent to being sued, and Congress can lift a state's immunity, but they have to make it 'unmistakably clear' that is their intention.

The 21st Amendment

While the 11th amendment is unique because it was the first non-Bill of Rights amendment, the 21st amendment is unique because it is the only amendment written with the sole purpose of erasing a previous amendment. The 18th amendment was ratified in 1919, and took effect in 1920, making prohibition the law of the land. Prohibition made the manufacture, transport, and sales of alcohol illegal in the United States.

In reaction to the 18th amendment, sales of alcohol went to where sales of illegal products usually go - to the black market. This led to violence, gang activity, and a rash of problems. It was only 13 years later, in 1933, when the 21st amendment was presented, which simply repealed the 18th amendment, making alcohol legal again, or at least gave local municipalities the ability to make their own laws on the control of alcohol. Even today, there are still 'dry counties' in many states, where alcohol sales aren't allowed, but that has become a local decision - not a constitutional amendment.

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