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The federal government retains ample means of ensuring that state-run ports comply with the Shipping Act and other valid federal rules governing ocean-borne commerce. The Federal Maritime Commission, for example, remains free to investigate alleged violations of the Shipping Act, either upon its own initiative or upon information supplied by a private party, 46 C.F.R. § 502.282 (2001), and to institute its own administrative proceeding against a state-run port. 46 U.S.C.S. app. § 1710(c); 46 C.F.R. § 502.61(a) (2001). Additionally, the commission may bring suit in a district court of the United States to enjoin conduct in violation of the Shipping Act. 46 U.S.C.S. app. § 1710(h)(1). The relief sought by a plaintiff suing a state is irrelevant to the question whether the suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. There is no reason why a different principle should apply in the realm of administrative adjudications.
South Carolina Maritime Services, Inc. filed a complaint with petitioner Federal Maritime Commission, contending that respondent South Carolina State Ports Authority violated the Shipping Act of 1984 when it denied Maritime Services permission to berth a cruise ship at the SCSPA's port facilities. They also prayed to petitioner to direct respondent to pay reparations to Maritime Services, to order respondent to cease and desist from violating the Shipping Act, and to ask the district court to enjoin respondents from refusing berthing space and passenger services to Maritime Services. The complaint was referred to an Administrative Law Judge, who found that respondent, as an arm of the State, was entitled to sovereign immunity and thus ordered the dismissal of the complaint. Plaintiff contended that such immunity from judicial actions did not apply to its administrative proceedings. Upon the grant of a writ of certiorari, petitioner commission appealed the judgment of the court of appeals which held that petitioner’s proceedings against the agency were barred by state sovereign immunity.
Was the petitioner commission barred from administratively adjudicating the complaint against respondent state port?
Yes. The judgment barring the commission's administrative adjudication of the complaint against the state port agency was affirmed.
The United States Supreme Court held that state sovereign immunity barred the petitioner commission from adjudicating the complaint filed by the non-governmental vessel owner against the respondent state agency which had not consented to be subject to the proceedings. The court determined that, historically, states were not subject to private suits in administrative adjudications when the United States Constitution was adopted, and states were thus presumptively immune from such actions. Further, the court ruled that the overwhelming similarities between the petitioner commission's proceedings and civil litigation indicated that there was no basis for distinguishing between the actions for purposes of sovereign immunity. Also, state immunity did not preclude the federal government, including the petitioner, from seeking administrative or judicial relief against the respondent agency for violating the Shipping Act.