Chisholm v. Georgia

Chisholm v. Georgia

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about the court case that explored the limits of Constitutional jurisdiction. Written for HIS 303: The American Constitution.


Chisholm v. Georgia



The U.S. Supreme Court case of Alexander Chisholm of South Carolina against the State of Georgia, which took place in 1793, was significant to the history of Constitutional law both in its original decision, and in the constitutional amendment that was created in response to the case.

The case under consideration was that of Alexander Chisholm, the executor for the estate of the late Robert Farquhar.  Chisholm had filed suit in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Georgia for “100,000 pounds in sterling silver for payment of the debt plus interest” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 2005, para. 2).  The cause of the debt is contested, but is not necessarily relevant to the case, with one version saying that it was restitution for “lands Georgia had confiscated during the Revolution” (Levy, 1986, para. 2), and the other version saying that “[i]n 1777, the Executive Council of Georgia authorized the purchase of needed supplies … [and] [a]fter receiving the supplies, Georgia did not deliver payments as promised” (Chisholm v. Georgia, n.d., para. 1).  Justice James Iredell, serving as a circuit judge, “dismissed the suit for want of jurisdiction” (Levy, 1986, para. 3).  Chisholm appealed to the Supreme Court under the Judiciary Act of 1789, which “gave [the Supreme Court] original jurisdiction in cases regarding suits between states and citizens of other states” (O’Connor and Sabado, 2008, [Electronic version], section, para. 2).  The Supreme Court entered a default judgment in favor of Chisholm because “officials [of Georgia] refused to appear in court and vigorously denied the Court’s jurisdiction” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 1999, para. 1).

This case raised questions about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution only two years after the Constitution was ratified.  The first question was whether or not the Constitution gives the Supreme Court jurisdiction in a case in which a State is named as the defendant.  Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution (1791) reads:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority … to Controversies between two or more States; -- between a State and Citizens of another State; -- between Citizens of different States. (Cited in O’Connor and Sabado, 2008, p. 77)

The second question raised by this case is related to the first, and asks whether or not the sovereignty of a State gives the State immunity from being sued in federal court, regardless of Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

          Chief Justice John Jay (1793), who was a member of the Supreme Court that heard Chisholm v. Georgia, stated in his opinion on the case that

[A]ny one State in the Union may sue another State in this [Supreme] court, that is, all the people of one State may sue all the people of another State. It is plain, then, that a State may be sued, and hence it plainly follows that suability and state sovereignty are not incompatible.  (Cited in Chisholm v. Georgia, 1999, para. 3)

Jay (1793) further states that “I am clearly of opinion that a State is suable by citizens of another State” (Cited in Chisholm v. Georgia, 1999, para 12).

          The original decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia was that “final sovereignty resided in the people of the United States, and at least for the purposes of this lawsuit Georgia was not a sovereign state” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 2005, para. 6).  In effect, this decision extended the interpretation of Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution to say that a private citizen in one state was equally as entitled as a State to sue another State, and to say that a State that was sued by a citizen could not claim immunity from the provisions of Article III based on the sovereignty of the State.  That decision was highly significant, because the States at that time maintained their sovereignty and believed that “no sovereign state could be sued without its consent unless Congress so authorized” (Levy, 1986, para. 2).

          Four out of the five Supreme Court Justices, in seriatim opinions [[1] Seriatim " in a series.  (Seriatim, 2010)], decided in favor of Chisholm.  The fifth, Justice Iredell, who was the same Justice who had dismissed the case in Circuit Court, dissented from his fellow Justices.  Iredell contended that

[T]he states enjoyed the same sovereign immunity as the English King at the time of the American settlement. Article III did not alter the states' immunity from being sued without their consent … [and] even if the Constitution would admit of the exercise of such a power, a new law is necessary for the purpose, since no part of the existing law applies.  (Chisholm v. Georgia, 2005, para. 7)

The original decision in this case set a powerful, and potentially dangerous, precedent for the interpretation of Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  It set the stage for citizens to sue the States at will, and “seemed to open the treasuries of the states to suits by Tories and other creditors” (Levy, 1986, para. 3).  It established that “the people of the United States, rather than the states or people thereof, had formed the Union and were the ultimate sovereigns” (Levy, 1986, para. 2).  This situation caused a great deal of consternation among the several States, as “[e]ach state understood the implications of being forced to pay Revolutionary War debt at a time when the state treasuries were struggling to avoid insolvency” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 2005, para. 8).  The States rightly assumed that this decision not only opened the States to being sued, and to being forced to pay debts the States could not afford to pay, but also that the decision was “an untenable intrusion on state authority … [and] was also considered a confirmation of Anti-Federalist fears that such a reading of Article III would ‘prove most pernicious and destructive’ to states’ rights” (O’Connor and Sabado, 2008, [Electronic version], section, para. 2).

Of equal significance to the original decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia is Congress’ response to the decision.  “The Court’s decision provoked widespread criticism, and two days later the Eleventh Amendment was proposed in Congress” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 1999, para. 1).  The Eleventh Amendment, which was ratified on February 7, 1795, 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.  (Cited in O’Connor and Sabado, 2008, p. 85)

The Eleventh Amendment was drafted to supersede any precedence established by Chisholm v. Georgia, and to protect the sovereignty of the states.  As O’Connor and Sabado (2008) state:

The Eleventh Amendment nullified the result in Chisolm [sic] but did not completely bar a citizen from bringing suit against a state in federal court. Citizens may bring lawsuits against state officials in federal court if they can satisfy the requirement that their rights under federal constitutional or statutory law have been violated.  (p. 85)

          As the first case of Constitutional law to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Chisholm v. Georgia is greatly significant.  It “forced the Court to grapple with contentious debates over federalism or the proper balance of power between the state and federal governments” (Chisholm v. Georgia, 2005, para. 10).  The case itself established that the citizens of the United States held the sovereign power in the United States.  When the case was superseded by the Eleventh Amendment, the sovereign power of the States was re-established.



Chisholm v. Georgia.  (1999, August 18).  Retrieved February 15, 2010, from           366/documents/chisholm_v_georgia.html

“Chisholm v. Georgia.”  (2005)  West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.  Retrieved     February 15, 2010, from                                     

Chisholm v. Georgia.  (n.d.).  Retrieved February 18, 2010, from the Oyez Project Web site          at

Levy, L.W.  (1986).  Chisholm v. Georgia 2 Dallas 419 (1793).  Retrieved February 15, 2010,     from

O'Connor, K. and Sabato, L.J.  (2008).  American government: Continuity and change, 2008     Edition.  New York: Pearson-Longman.

O'Connor, K. and Sabato, L.J.  (2008).  American government: Continuity and change,    [Electronic version].  New York: Pearson-Longman.

“Seriatim”. (2010).  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.               Retrieved February 18, 2010, from http://www.merriam-

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, American history, Supreme Court, constitutional law, constitutional jurisdiction, states; rights, limit of power

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..