Ngiraingas v. Sanchez/Opinion of the Court

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Ngiraingas v. Sanchez by Harry Blackmun
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
Brennan


In this case we must decide whether a Territory or an officer of the Territory acting in his or her official capacity is a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982 ed.).

* Petitioners Alex Ngiraingas, Oscar Ongklungel, Jimmy Moses, Arthur Mechol, Jonas Ngeheed, and Bolandis Ngiraingas filed suit in the District Court of Guam, alleging numerous constitutional violations and seeking damages under § 1983. [1] The named defendants were the Government of Guam, the Guam Police Department, the Director of the Police Department in her official capacity, and various Guam police officers in their official and individual capacities.

Petitioners were arrested by Guam police on suspicion of having committed narcotics offenses. The complaint, as finally amended, alleged that petitioners were taken to police headquarters in Agana where officers assaulted them and forced them to write and sign statements confessing narcotics crimes.

The District Court dismissed the claims against the Government of Guam and the police department on the ground that Guam was immune from suit under the Organic Act of Guam, 64 Stat. 384, § 3, as amended, 48 U.S.C. § 1421a (1982 ed.), unless Congress or the Guam Legislature waived Guam's immunity. App. to Pet. for Cert. A-4 to A-6. The District Court also dismissed the action against the individual defendants in their official capacities, explaining that because a judgment against the individuals in their official capacities would affect the public treasury, the real party in interest was the Government of Guam. Ibid.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. 858 F.2d 1368 (1988) (superseding the opinion at 849 F.2d 372). Analogizing the government to an administrative agency, the court ruled that Guam is "no more than" a federal instrumentality, and thus is not a person within the meaning of § 1983. 858 F.2d, at 1371-1372. "For the same reasons," the police department, also, is not a person under § 1983. Id., at 1372. Finally, the Court of Appeals ruled that Guam officials may not be sued in their official capacities under § 1983, because a judgment against those defendants in their official capacities would affect the public treasury and the suit essentially would be one against the government itself. Ibid. [2] Accordingly, the court affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the claims against the Government of Guam, the Guam Police Department, and the individual defendants in their official capacities. [3]

Because of the importance of the question, and because at least one other Court of Appeals has advanced a different view as to whether a Territory is subject to liability under § 1983, [4] we granted certiorari, 493 U.S. 807, 110 S.Ct. 48, 107 L.Ed.2d 17 (1989).

Guam, an island of a little more than 200 square miles located in the west central Pacific, became a United States possession at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War by the Treaty of Paris, Art. II, 30 Stat. 1755. Except for the period from December 1941 to July 1944, when Japan invaded and occupied the island, the United States Navy administered Guam's affairs from 1898 to 1950, when the Organic Act was passed. [5] Among other things, the Act provided for an elected governor and established Guam as an unincorporated Territory. 48 U.S.C. §§ 1421a and 1422 (1982 ed.). It was said at the time that this unincorporated status did not promise eventual statehood. See H.R.Rep. No. 1365, App. No. 3, 81st Cong., 1st Sess., 9 (1949). The United States continues to this day to have a military presence in Guam, with an Air Force base, a Navy communications base, air and weather stations, and a large complex that serves the Seventh Fleet. [6]

To determine whether Guam constitutes a "person" within the meaning of § 1983, we examine the statute's language and purpose. The current version relates to "[e]very person who [acts] under color of any statute . . . of any State or Terri tory." The statute itself obviously affords no clue as to whether its word "person" includes a Territory. We seek, therefore, indicia of congressional intent at the time the statute was enacted. See District of Columbia v. Carter, 409 U.S. 418, 425, 93 S.Ct. 602, 606, 34 L.Ed.2d 613 (1973) (analysis of purposes and scope of § 1983 must "take cognizance of the events and passions of the time at which it was enacted"). See also United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 803, 86 S.Ct. 1152, 1161, 16 L.Ed.2d 267 (1966).

Our review of § 1983's history uncovers no sign that Congress was thinking of Territories when it enacted the statute over a century ago in 1871. The historical background shows with stark clarity that Congress was concerned only with events "stateside." "Section 1983 was originally enacted as § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Act was enacted for the purpose of enforcing the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment." Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 354, 99 S.Ct. 1139, 1152, 59 L.Ed.2d 358 (1979) (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment); see also Carter, 409 U.S., at 423, 93 S.Ct., at 605 ("[Section] 1983 has its roots in § 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, Act of Apr. 20, 1871"). After the War Between the States, race relations in the Southern States were troubled. The Ku Klux Klan, organized by southern whites, commenced "a wave of murders and assaults . . . against both blacks and Union sympathizers." Id., at 425, 93 S.Ct., at 607. Congress was worried "about the insecurity of life and property in the South," and designed § 1 of the Act "primarily in response to the unwillingness or inability of the state governments to enforce their own laws against those violating the civil rights of others." Id., at 425-426, 93 S.Ct., at 606-607 (emphasis added). [7] "The debates are replete with references to the lawless conditions existing in the South in 1871. There was available to the Congress during these debates a report, nearly 600 pages in length, dealing with the activities of the Klan and the inability of the state governments to cope with it. This report was drawn on by many of the speakers" (footnote omitted). Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 174, 81 S.Ct. 473, 477, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961) (overruled in certain other respects by Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)).

Because Congress was directly concerned with this unrest in the Southern States, it specifically focused on States in the legislation aimed at solving the problem. "As initially enacted, § 1 of the 1871 Act applied only to action under color of the law of any 'State.' 17 Stat. 13." [8] Carter, 409 U.S., at 424, n. 11, 93 S.Ct., at 606, n. 11. Persons acting under color of law of any Territory were not included. Viewed against "the events and passions of the time," id., at 425, 93 S.Ct., at 606, it is evident that Congress was not concerned with Territories when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, but was concerned, instead, with the "hundreds of outrages committed . . . through the agency of this Ku Klux organization [that had not been] punished" in the Southern States. Cong.Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess., 505 (1871) (remarks of Sen. Pratt). As to Congress' failure to include persons acting under color of law of any Territory, "[w]e can only conclude that this silence on the matter is itself a significant indication of the legislative intent of § 1." Quern, 440 U.S., at 343, 99 S.Ct., at 1146. The omission demonstrates that Congress did not mean to subject Territories to liability under this statute.

Further, the remedy provided by § 1983 was designed to combat the perceived evil. "Congress recognized the need for original federal court jurisdiction as a means to provide at least indirect federal control over the unconstitutional actions of state officials." Carter, 409 U.S., at 428, 93 S.Ct., at 608. " 'The United States courts are further above mere local influence than the county courts; their judges can act with more independence, cannot be put under terror, as local judges can; their sympathies are not so nearly identified with those of the vicinage. . . .' " Ibid. (quoting Cong.Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess., 460 (1871) (remarks of Rep. Coburn)). Because the organization of the judicial system of a Territory was unlike those of the States, it would not have engendered such immediate concern. "Under the organic acts, each territory had three justices appointed by the president for four-year terms. Sitting together, they constituted a supreme court; sitting separately, they acted as district judges. In both capacities they had jurisdiction over cases arising under United States or territorial law." E. Pomeroy, The Territories and the United States 1861-1890, Studies in Colonial Administration 51 (1947). Thus, unlike the state courts, over which the Federal Government had no control, the territorial courts were created by Acts of Congress, with judges appointed by the President, and were under the general control of the Federal Government.

Finally, the successive enactments of the statute, in context, further reveal the lack of any intent on the part of Congress to include Territories as persons. In 1871, the Act exposed to liability "any person [acting]under color of any law . . . of any State." Act of Apr. 20, 1871, § 1, 17 Stat. 13. Such persons in the 1871 Act could not possibly have included a Territory because "Territories are not 'States' within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment," and a Territory could not have been a "person [acting] under color of" any state law. Carter, 409 U.S., at 424, n. 11, 93 S.Ct., at 606, n. 11. Any attempt to interpret "person" as including a "Territory" would be too strained a reading of the statute and would lead to a far more "awkward" interpretation than what a majority of the Court found significant in Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2308, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989) (to read § 1983 as saying that " 'every person including a State, who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects. . .' " would be "a decidedly awkward way of expressing an intent to subject the States to liability").

This reading of the original statute is supported by its next enactment. In 1874, the phrase "or Territory" was added to § 1, without explanation, in the 1874 codification and revision of the United States Statutes at Large. Rev.Stat. § 1979. See Carter, 409 U.S., at 424, n. 11, 93 S.Ct., at 606, n. 11. But while the 1874 amendment exposed to liability "[e]very person [acting] under color of any [law] . . . of any . . . Territory," it did not expose a Territory itself to liability. In the same revision that added "Territory" to § 1, Congress amended § 2 of the Act of Feb. 25, 1871, 16 Stat. 431 (the "Dictionary Act"), "which supplied rules of construction for all legislation." Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S., at 719, 98 S.Ct., at 2050 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting); see also Will, 491 U.S., at 78, 109 S.Ct., at 2316 (BRENNAN, J. dissenting). In 1871, § 2 of the Dictionary Act defined "person" as including "bodies politic and corporate." [9] The 1874 recodification omitted those three words and substituted "partnerships and corpora tions." [10] It is significant that at the time Congress added "Territory" to § 1983, so that a person acting under color of territorial law could be liable under the statute, Congress clarified the definition of those whose actions could give rise to § 1983 liability. Most significant is the asserted reason for doing so:

"The reasons for the latter change [substituting 'partnerships and corporations' for 'bodies politic and corporate'] are that partnerships ought to be included; and even if the phrase 'bodies politic' is precisely equivalent to 'corporations,' it is redundant; but if, on the contrary, 'body politic' is somewhat broader, and should be understood to include a government, such as a State, while "corporation" should be confined to an association of natural persons on whom government has conferred continuous succession, then the provision goes further than is convenient. It requires the draughtsman, in the majority of cases of employing the word 'person,' to take care that States, Territories, foreign governments, &c., appear to be excluded." 1 Revision of the United States Statutes as Drafted 19 (1872).

As these comments make clear, at the time Congress first made it possible for a person acting under color of territorial law to be held liable, the very same Congress pointedly redefined the word "person" to make it clear that a Territory would not be included. [11] It is evident that Congress did not intend to encompass a Territory among those "persons" who could be exposed to § 1983 liability. "Just as '[w]e are not at liberty to seek ingenious analytical instruments' to avoid giving a congressional enactment the broad scope its language and origins may require, United States v. Price, 383 U.S., at 801 [86 S.Ct., at 1160], so too are we not at liberty to recast this statute to expand its application beyond the limited reach Congress gave it." Carter, 409 U.S., at 432, 93 S.Ct., at 610.

In conclusion, when we examine the confluence of § 1983's language, its purpose, and its successive enactments, together with the fact that Congress has defined "person" to exclude Territories, it becomes clear that Congress did not intend to include Territories as persons who would be liable under § 1983.

Petitioners concede, Brief for Petitioners 4, 50, and we agree, that if Guam is not a person, neither are its officers acting in their official capacity.

We hold that neither the Territory of Guam nor its officers acting in their official capacities are "persons" under § 1983. [12] The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

Justice KENNEDY took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

Notes[edit]

^1  Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982 ed.) reads in full:

"Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia."

Petitioners also sought damages under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1985, and 1986 (1982 ed.).

^2  Inasmuch as the Court of Appeals held that Guam is not a person for purposes of § 1983, it did not decide whether Guam enjoyed sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. 858 F.2d, at 1372, n. 2.

^3  The Court of Appeals ruled that respondent police officers could be sued under § 1983 in their individual capacities to the extent they were not entitled to immunity. The court determined that the police officers were not entitled to immunity from suit in their individual capacities by virtue of § 3 of the Organic Act, as amended, 48 U.S.C. § 1421a (1982 ed.). 858 F.2d, at 1373. In the court's view, that provision applied only to suits against the Government of Guam and, perhaps, suits against government officers acting in their official capacities. Ibid. Nevertheless, the court held that the defendant officers were entitled to invoke qualified immunity under Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). The Ninth Circuit therefore reversed the District Court's dismissal of the action against the police officers in their individual capacities and directed the District Court partially to reinstate the complaint and to consider whether the individual officers were entitled to qualified immunity. 858 F.2d, at 1374.

^4  See Frett v. Government of Virgin Islands, 839 F.2d 968 (CA3 1988) (Government of Virgin Islands is subject to same liability under § 1983 as any other governmental entity). See also Fleming v. Department of Public Safety, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, 837 F.2d 401 (CA9), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 889, 109 S.Ct. 222, 102 L.Ed.2d 212 (1988), discussed by the Ninth Circuit in the instant case, 858 F.2d, at 1371, n. 1.

^5  See A. Leibowitz, Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations 313, 323 (1989).

^6  See Leibowitz, supra, at 348.

^7  The Ku Klux Act grew out of a message sent to Congress by President Grant on March 23, 1871. It said:

"A condition of affairs now exists in some States of the Union rendering life and property insecure and the carrying of the mails and the collection of the revenue dangerous. The proof that such a condition of affairs exists in some localities is now before the Senate. That the power to correct these evils is beyond the control of State authorities I do not doubt; that the power of the Executive of the United States, acting within the limits of existing laws, is sufficient for present emergencies is not clear." See Cong.Globe, 42d Cong., 1st Sess., 244. See also Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 172-173, 81 S.Ct. 473, 476, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961).

^8  The Act of Apr. 20, 1871, § 1, 17 Stat. 13, read:

"That any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any person within the jurisdiction of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution of the United States, shall, any such law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of the State to the contrary notwithstanding, be liable to the party injured in any action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress; such proceeding to be prosecuted in the several district or circuit courts of the United States. . . ."

^9  "That in all acts hereafter passed . . . the word 'person' may extend and be applied to bodies politic and corporate. . . ." 16 Stat. 431.

^10  "In determining the meaning of the revised statutes, or of any act or resolution of Congress passed subsequent to February twenty-fifth, eighteen hundred and seventy-one, . . . the word 'person' may extend and be applied to partnerships and corporations. . . ." Rev.Stat. § 1. Because the words "or Territory" were added in the very "revised statutes" to which the language in the Dictionary Act refers, we conclude that the amended definition of "person" is the definition to which we look in determining whether a Territory is included in that definition.

^11  This reasoning is fully consistent with the Court's decision in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). There the Court held that a municipality could be a "person [acting] under color of any law . . . of any State," Act of Apr. 20, 1871, § 1, 17 Stat. 13, and thus was exposed to liability under the 1871 statute. In concluding that the 1871 Congress specifically intended to subject municipalities to § 1983 liability, we relied, among other things, on indications in the legislative history that municipal liability was contemplated, on the general treatment of corporations (including municipal corporations) as "persons," and on the 1871 version of the Dictionary Act. 436 U.S., at 686-689, 98 S.Ct., at 2033-2035. As has been explained, the 1871 Congress had no similar intent with respect to Territories, and when it did address Territories in 1874, Congress intended not to subject them to liability. The 1874 revisions of the Dictionary Act, however, must be considered in light of the previously and more specifically expressed intent to subject municipalities to liability.

More recently, there have been at least two attempts in Congress to amend § 1983 to include States and Territories within the meaning of persons. The bills did not leave Committee. See Sagafi-Nejad, Proposed Amendments to Section 1983 Introduced in the Senate, 27 St. Louis U.L.J. 373, 374, 376, n. 21 (1983).

^12  This conclusion makes it unnecessary to consider Guam's claim of immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).