42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 does not override the traditional sovereign immunity of the states. An entity with U.S. Const. amend. XI immunity is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983. A state and arms of a state, which have traditionally enjoyed U.S. Const. amend. XI immunity, are not subject to suit under § 1983 in either federal court or state court.
A high school student filed a claim against a public school board for violation of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 in which he alleged that a school official made an illegal search of his automobile while it was parked on school grounds and that he was wrongfully suspended from classes. He contended that the search and subsequent suspension violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court of appeals, however, dismissed the student's claim. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Florida refused to hear the case based on sovereign immunity grounds. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Did the Supreme Court of Florida have jurisdiction to hear the case?
The Court reversed the decision and remanded for further proceedings. The state court had jurisdiction to hear petitioner's § 1983 claims under the express language of § 1983, and it was required to exercise that jurisdiction. Section 1983, a federal law, was part of the state law, and the state court was unable to deny such a federal right absent a "valid excuse." A state law sovereign immunity defense was not available to respondent, who was otherwise subject to suit in state court. Respondent was not an arm of the state and such a defense would have been unavailable if the action was had been brought in federal court.