In a lawsuit or criminal case, parties are those directly involved in the case. The one bringing the case is called the moving party (or plaintiff) and the one whom the case is brought against is the opposing party (or defendant). The Constitution grants federal courts, including the Supreme Court, the authority to hear all cases in which the United States is a party. This has been expanded by acts of Congress, especially for cases where the United States is the plaintiff. There are limits to when the United States can be sued as a defendant.
Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:
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 all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
In the first edition of his Treatise, Justice Story noted that while "an express power is no where given in the constitution, the right of the United States to sue in its own courts is clearly implied in that part respecting the judicial power. . . . Indeed, all the usual incidents appertaining to a personal sovereign, in relation to contracts, and suing, and enforcing rights, so far as they are within the scope of the powers of the government, belong to the United States, as they do to other sovereigns."1 As early as 1818, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States could sue in its own name in all cases of contract without congressional authorization of such suits.2 Later, this rule was extended to other types of actions. In the absence of statutory provisions to the contrary, such suits are initiated by the Attorney General in the name of the United States.3
By the Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent amendments to it, Congress has vested in the federal district courts jurisdiction to hear all suits of a civil nature at law or in equity brought by the United States as a party plaintiff.4 As in other judicial proceedings, the United States, like any party plaintiff, must have an interest in the subject matter and a legal right to the remedy sought.5 Under the long-settled principle that the courts have the power to abate public nuisances at the suit of the government, the provision in § 208(2) of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1949, authorizing federal courts to enjoin strikes that imperil national health or safety was upheld on the grounds that the statute entrusts the courts with the determination of a "case or controversy" on which the judicial power can operate and does not impose any legislative, executive, or non-judicial function. Moreover, the fact that the rights sought to be protected were those of the public in unimpeded production in industries vital to public health, as distinguished from the private rights of labor and management, was held not to alter the adversary ("case or controversy") nature of the litigation instituted by the United States as the guardian of the aforementioned rights.6 Also, by reason of the highest public interest in the fulfillment of all constitutional guarantees, "including those that bear . . . directly on private rights, . . . it [is] perfectly competent for Congress to authorize the United States to be the guardian of that public interest in a suit for injunctive relief."7
Controversies to which the United States is a party include suits brought against states as party defendants. The first such suit occurred in United States v. North Carolina,8 which was an action by the United States to recover upon bonds issued by North Carolina. Although no question of jurisdiction was raised, in deciding the case on its merits in favor of the state, the Court tacitly assumed that it had jurisdiction over such cases. The issue of jurisdiction was directly raised by Texas a few years later in a bill in equity brought by the United States to determine the boundary between Texas and the Territory of Oklahoma, and the Court sustained its jurisdiction over strong arguments by Texas to the effect that it could not be sued by the United States without its consent and that the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction did not extend to cases to which the United States is a party.9 Stressing the inclusion within the judicial power of cases to which the United States and a state are parties, the elder Justice Harlan pointed out that the Constitution made no exception of suits brought by the United States. In effect, therefore, consent to be sued by the United States "was given by Texas when admitted to the Union upon an equal footing in all respects with the other States."10
Suits brought by the United States have, however, been infrequent. All of them have arisen since 1889, and they have become somewhat more common since 1926. That year the Supreme Court decided a dispute between the United States and Minnesota over land patents issued to the state by the United States in breach of its trust obligations to the Chippewa tribe.11 In United States v. West Virginia,12 the Court refused to take jurisdiction of a suit in equity brought by the United States to determine the navigability of the New and Kanawha Rivers on the ground that the jurisdiction in such suits is limited to cases and controversies and does not extend to the adjudication of mere differences of opinion between the officials of the two governments. A few years earlier, however, it had taken jurisdiction of a suit by the United States against Utah to quiet title to land forming the beds of certain sections of the Colorado River and its tributaries with the states.13 Similarly, it took jurisdiction of a suit brought by the United States against California to determine the ownership of and paramount rights over the submerged land and the oil and gas thereunder off the coast of California between the low-water mark and the three-mile limit.14 Like suits were decided against Louisiana and Texas in 1950.15
Pursuant to the general rule that a sovereign cannot be sued in its own courts, the judicial power does not extend to suits against the United States unless Congress by statute consents to such suits. This rule first emanated in embryonic form in an obiter dictum by Chief Justice Jay in Chisholm v. Georgia, where he indicated that a suit would not lie against the United States because "there is no power which the courts can call to their aid."16 In Cohens v. Virginia,17 also in dictum, Chief Justice Marshall asserted, "the universally received opinion is that no suit can be commenced or prosecuted against the United States." The issue was more directly in question in United States v. Clarke,18 where Chief Justice Marshall stated that, as the United States is "not suable of common right, the party who institutes such suit must bring his case within the authority of some act of Congress, or the court cannot exercise jurisdiction over it." He thereupon ruled that the act of May 26, 1830, for the final settlement of land claims in Florida condoned the suit. The doctrine of the exemption of the United States from suit was repeated in various subsequent cases, without discussion or examination.19 Indeed, it was not until United States v. Lee20 that the Court examined the rule and the reasons for it, and limited its application accordingly.
Because suits against the United States can be maintained only by congressional consent, it follows that they can be brought only in the manner prescribed by Congress and subject to the restrictions imposed.21
As only Congress may waive the immunity of the United States from liability, officers of the United States are powerless either to waive such immunity or to confer jurisdiction on a federal court.22 Even when authorized, suits may be brought only in designated courts,23 and this rule applies equally to suits by states against the United States.24 Congress may also grant or withhold immunity from suit on behalf of government corporations.25
United States v. Lee, a 5-to-4 decision, qualified earlier holdings that a judgment affecting the property of the United States was in effect against the United States, by ruling that title to the Arlington estate of the Lee family, then being used as a national cemetery, was not legally vested in the United States but was being held illegally by army officers under an unlawful order of the President. In its examination of the sources and application of the rule of sovereign immunity, the Court concluded that the rule "if not absolutely limited to cases in which the United States are made defendants by name, is not permitted to interfere with the judicial enforcement of the rights of plaintiff when the United States is not a defendant or a necessary party to the suit."26 Except, nevertheless, for an occasional case like Kansas v. United States,27 which held that a state cannot sue the United States, most of the cases involving sovereign immunity from suit since 1883 have been cases against officers, agencies, or corporations of the United States where the United States has not been named as a party defendant. Thus, it has been held that a suit against the Secretary of the Treasury to review his decision on the rate of duty to be exacted on imported sugar would disturb the whole revenue system of the government and would in effect be a suit against the United States.28 Even more significant is Stanley v. Schwalby,29 holding that an action of trespass against an army officer to try title in a parcel of land occupied by the United States as a military reservation was a suit against the United States because a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs would have been a judgment against the United States.
Subsequent cases reaffirm the rule of United States v. Lee that, where the right to possession or enjoyment of property under general law is in issue, the fact that defendants claim the property as officers or agents of the United States does not make the action one against the United States until it is determined that they were acting within the scope of their lawful authority.30 On the other hand, the rule that a suit in which the judgment would affect the United States or its property is a suit against the United States has also been repeatedly approved and reaffirmed.31 But, as the Court has pointed out, it is not "an easy matter to reconcile all of the decisions of the court in this class of cases,"32 and, as Justice Frankfurter quite justifiably stated in a dissent, "the subject is not free from casuistry."33 Justice Douglas' characterization of Land v. Dollar, "this is the type of case where the question of jurisdiction is dependent on decision of the merits,"34 is frequently applicable.
Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp.,35 illuminates these obscurities somewhat. A private company sought to enjoin the Administrator of the War Assets in his official capacity from selling surplus coal to others than the plaintiff who had originally bought the coal, only to have the sale cancelled by the Administrator because of the company's failure to make an advance payment. Chief Justice Vinson and a majority of the Court looked upon the suit as one brought against the Administrator in his official capacity, acting under a valid statute and therefore a suit against the United States. It held that, although an officer in such a situation is not immune from suits for his own torts, his official action, though tortious, cannot be enjoined or diverted, because it is also the action of the sovereign.36 The Court then proceeded to repeat the rule that "the action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking, or otherwise legally affecting the plaintiff's property) can be regarded as so individual only if it is not within the officer's statutory powers, or, if within those powers, only if the powers or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void."37 The Court rejected the contention that the doctrine of sovereign immunity should be relaxed as inapplicable to suits for specific relief as distinguished from damage suits, saying: "The Government, as representative of the community as a whole, cannot be stopped in its tracks by any plaintiff who presents a disputed question of property or contract right."38
Suits against officers involving the doctrine of sovereign immunity have been classified into four general groups by Justice Frankfurter. First, there are those cases in which the plaintiff seeks an interest in property which belongs to the government or calls "for an assertion of what is unquestionably official authority."39 Such suits, of course, cannot be maintained.40 Second, cases in which action adverse to the interests of a plaintiff is taken under an unconstitutional statute or one alleged to be so. In general these suits are maintainable.41 Third, cases involving injury to a plaintiff because the official has exceeded his statutory authority. In general these suits are maintainable.42 Fourth, cases in which an officer seeks immunity behind statutory authority or some other sovereign command for the commission of a common law tort.43 This category of cases presents the greatest difficulties because these suits can as readily be classified as falling into the first group if the action directly or indirectly is one for specific performance or if the judgment would affect the United States.
The multiplication of government corporations during periods of war and depression has provided one motivation for limiting the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In Keifer & Keifer v. RFC,44 the Court held that the government does not become a conduit of its immunity in suits against its agents or instrumentalities merely because they do its work. Nor does the creation of a government corporation confer upon it legal immunity. Whether Congress endows a public corporation with governmental immunity in a specific instance is a matter of ascertaining the congressional will. Moreover, it has been held that waivers of governmental immunity in the case of federal instrumentalities and corporations should be construed liberally.45 On the other hand, Indian nations are exempt from suit without further congressional authorization; it is as though their former immunity as sovereigns passed to the United States for their benefit, as did their tribal properties.46