Ngiraingas v. Sanchez

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Ngiraingas v. Sanchez by Harry Blackmun
Court Documents
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

495 U.S. 182

Ngiraingas  v.  Sanchez

No. 88-1281  Argued: Jan. 8, 1990. --- Decided: April 24, 1990


Petitioners filed suit in the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against respondents-the Guam Government, the Guam Police Department and its Director in her official capacity, and various police officers in their official and individual capacities alleging that petitioners were arrested and assaulted by the officers and forced to write and sign confessions. The District Court dismissed the claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal with respect to the government, the police department, and the individual defendants in their official capacities. Analogizing the Government of Guam to an administrative agency, the court ruled that Guam and the police department are no more than federal instrumentalities and thus are not "persons" within the meaning of § 1983, which in its current version relates to "[e]very person who [acts] under color of any statute . . . of any State or Territory." The court also found that the Guam officials could not be sued in their official capacities, because a judgment against them in such capacities would affect the public treasury and the suit essentially would be one against the government itself.

Held: Neither the Territory of Guam nor its officers acting in their official capacities are "persons" under § 1983. Pp. 186-192.

(a) Since § 1983's language affords no clue as to whether "person" includes a Territory, indicia of congressional intent at the time of enactment must be sought. Pp. 186-187.

(b) The omission of Territories from the original version of § 1983 shows that Congress did not mean to subject them to liability. Rather, in 1871, Congress was concerned with Ku Klux Klan activities that were going unpunished in the Southern States and designed § 1983's remedy to combat this evil, recognizing the need for original federal-court jurisdiction as a means to provide at least indirect federal control over the unconstitutional acts of state officials. Territorial courts, in contrast, were under the Federal Government's general control and would not have engendered such immediate concern. Pp. 187-189.

(c) The statute's successive enactments, in context, further reveal the lack of any congressional intent to include Territories as persons. In the 1871 version, persons could not possibly have included Territories, because Territories are not States within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and could not have been persons acting under color of state law. Cf. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2308, 105 L.Ed.2d 45. This reading is supported by § 1983's next enactment in 1874, when Congress first added the phrase "or Territory," thus making it possible for a person acting under color of territorial law to be held liable. At the same time, however, Congress pointedly redefined the word "person" in the "Dictionary Act"-which supplied rules of construction for all legislation-to exclude Territories. Pp. 189-192.

(d) Since Guam is not a person, neither are its officers acting in their official capacity. P. 192.

858 F.2d 1368 (CA 9 1988), affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in all but Part II-B of which SCALIA, J., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 193. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Jeffrey R. Siegel, Walnut Creek, Cal., for petitioners.

John Patrick Mason, for respondents.

James A. Feldman, for U.S., as amicus curiae, supporting respondents, by special leave of Court.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court. [1]


^*  Justice SCALIA does not join Part II-B of this opinion.

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).

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