Will v. Michigan Department of State Police

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Will v. Michigan Department of State Police by Byron White
Court Documents
Dissenting Opinions

United States Supreme Court

491 U.S. 58

Will  v.  Michigan Department of State Police

No. 87-1207  Argued: Dec. 5, 1988. --- Decided: June 15, 1989


Petitioner filed Michigan state-court suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that respondents, the Department of State Police and the Director of State Police in his official capacity, had denied him a promotion for an improper reason. The state-court judge ruled for petitioner, finding that both respondents were "persons" under § 1983, which provides that any person who deprives an individual of his or her constitutional rights under color of state law shall be liable to that individual. However, the State Court of Appeals vacated the judgment against the Department, holding that a State is not a person under § 1983, and remanded the case for a determination of the Director's possible immunity. The State Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, agreeing that the State is not a person under § 1983, but holding that a state official acting in his or her fficial capacity also is not such a person.

Held: Neither States nor state officials acting in their official capacities are "persons" within meaning of § 1983. Pp. 62-71.

(a) That a State is not a person under § 1983 is supported by the statute's language, congressional purpose, and legislative history. In common usage, the term "person" does not include a State. This usage is particularly applicable where it is claimed that Congress has subjected the States to liability to which they had not been subject before. Reading § 1983 to include States would be a decidedly awkward way of expressing such a congressional intent. The statute's language also falls short of satisfying the ordinary rule of statutory construction that Congress must make its intention to alter the constitutional balance between the States and the Federal Government unmistakably clear in a statute's language. Moreover, the doctrine of sovereign immunity is one of the well-established common-law immunities and defenses that Congress did not intend to override in enacting § 1983. Cf. Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 101 S.Ct. 2748, 69 L.Ed.2d 616; Railroad Co. v. Tennessee, 101 U.S. 337, 25 L.Ed. 960. The "Dictionary Act" provision that a "person" includes "bodies politic and corporate" fails to evidence such an intent. This Court's ruling in Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611-which held that a municipality is a person under § 1983-is not to the contrary, since States are protected by the Eleventh Amendment while municipalities are not. Pp. 63-70.

(b) A suit against state officials in their official capacities is not a suit against the officials but rather is a suit against the officials' offices and, thus, is no different from a suit against the State itself. Pp. 70-71.

428 Mich. 540, 410 N.W.2d 749, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 71. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 87.

William Burnham, Detroit, Mich., for petitioner.

George H. Weller, East Lansing, Mich., for respondents.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.


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).