sovereign immunity

One can’t help but wonder if the Supreme Court decided to hear Allen v. Cooper because it involves a pirate ship. The (not very glamorous) legal issue the Supreme Court will decide is whether states can be sued in federal court for copyright violations.

North Carolina owns a ship pirate Blackbeard captured, renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, and sunk between 1717-18. In the late 1990s North Carolina permitted a private research and salvage firm to photograph the ship. North Carolina continued to own the shipwreck and its artifacts, and the company could make money from the sale of media related to the ship. Frederick Allen, who was hired by the salvage firm to take photos and videos of the ship, sued North Carolina for infringing on images Allen copyrighted.

The Eleventh Amendment protects states and state officials acting in their official capacity from being sued in federal court. Congress may abrogate sovereign immunity by making a clear statement of its intent and validly exercising congressional power. Allen claims North Carolina can be sued in federal court for infringing on his copyright because Congress abrogated states’ sovereign immunity in the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act. 

Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt (Hyatt III) is a win for state sovereignty, albeit an obscure victory. In this case the Supreme Court overturned precedent to hold 5-4 that states are immune from private lawsuits brought in courts of other states.

Since 1993 Gilbert Hyatt and the Franchise Tax Board of California (FTB) have been involved in a dispute over Hyatt’s 1991 and 1992 tax returns. FTB claims that Hyatt owes California taxes from income he earned in California. Hyatt claims he lived in Nevada during the relevant time period. Hyatt sued FTB in Nevada claiming FTB committed a number of torts during the audit.