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Closing the Gap: The Fourth Circuit's Narrowing of the Ex Parte Young Exception in Virginia v. Reinhard and the Implications for Administrative Law

48 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2010 Last revised: 12 Feb 2010

Harrison Mann Gates

University of Richmond

Date Written: January 21, 2010


The legal debate over state sovereign immunity has persisted practically since the founding. Under the sovereign immunity doctrine, states cannot be sued without their consent even for violations of the Constitution or federal law. Sovereign immunity, thus, kindles the lasting tension between the supposed supremacy of federal law and the separate sovereignty of the states. Since its initial recognition of state sovereign immunity in Hans v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court has recognized several exceptions to the doctrine designed to secure state compliance with federal law. One such exception is the Ex Parte Young doctrine. In Ex Parte Young, the Court announced that individual state citizens could bring suit against state officers in federal court for an ongoing violation of federal law. In recent decades, however, the Supreme Court has vastly expanded the bar of sovereign immunity as an integral part of the “federalist revival” begun by the Rehnquist Court. The Court recently has incorporated the “anti-commandeering” principles from parallel federalism cases into its sovereign immunity jurisprudence, resulting in a significant narrowing of federal judicial power to hear claims against the states. In Virginia v. Reinhard, the Fourth Circuit confronted a question of first impression about the applicability of the Ex Parte Young exception. That case presented the issue of whether a state administrative agency could bring suit in federal court against another state agency to secure its compliance with federal law. In holding that the agency could not bring suit under Ex Parte Young, the Court of Appeals issued a decision with major implications for administrative law and how state agencies may enforce state compliance with federal regulatory schemes. This paper ultimately concludes that Reinhard merely constitutes a natural extension of the sound theoretical principles announced in the Supreme Court’s most recent sovereign immunity cases. Moreover, the practical consequences for state agency enforcement of federal regulatory schemes will be minimal because of the remaining avenues available for enforcing federal rights.

Keywords: sovereign immunity, Ex Parte Young, Virginia v. Reinhard, anti-commandeering

JEL Classification: K1, K2, K10, K19, K23, K29

Suggested Citation

Gates, Harrison Mann, Closing the Gap: The Fourth Circuit's Narrowing of the Ex Parte Young Exception in Virginia v. Reinhard and the Implications for Administrative Law (January 21, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Harrison Mann Gates (Contact Author)

University of Richmond ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

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