Continuing our series on legal immunity, we’re looking at federal and state immunity today. You can check out our posts on qualified immunity, absolute immunity, and sovereign immunity at those links. As you know, along with power distributed between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches in the U.S., it is also distributed between federal, state, and local government. Thus, immunity looks different for each. Today, we’ll unpack the differences between federal and state sovereign immunity.
Federal Sovereign Immunity
First, we’ve covered sovereign immunity at length in our last post. But we need more detail here to understand federal and state sovereign immunity. Although the federal government can face legal consequences for violating a persons rights, rarely can it face civil lawsuits. However, thanks to laws like the Federal Tort Claims Act (1946), citizens can sue the federal government if the government is liable for committing a civil wrong against a citizen.
For example, the United States government faced several lawsuits against them for the CIA-financed program Project MK-Ultra. This program sought to develop mind-control and brainwashing techniques. First it used volunteers from the military, but then turned to prisoners and mental health hospital residents without their consent. These experiments caused severe psychological damage, so many of the victims were allowed to sue the government.
State Sovereign Immunity
Second, differences exist between federal and state sovereign immunity. The 11th Amendment restricts people’s ability to file suits against their states. In many cases, state sovereign immunity is even stronger than federal sovereign immunity. Partly because the federal government would have to lead the prosecution against its own state.
However, even though certain institutions receive state funding, and may even be run by state officials, they do not have state sovereign immunity. These include:
- Schools and school districts
- Most public welfare agencies
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