The Tapestry Unravels: Statutory Waivers of Sovereign Immunity and Money Claims Against the United States

106 Pages Posted: 17 May 2005

See all articles by Gregory C. Sisk

Gregory C. Sisk

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


Statutory waivers of sovereign immunity have been enacted piecemeal by Congress over the course of more than a century and yet they nevertheless fit together into a reasonably well-integrated pattern - or tapestry - of causes of action covering most subjects of dispute between the government and its citizens. Congress often has contributed to this integration, intentionally or unintentionally, by limiting the sweep of one statute to avoid conflict with another. However, the courts, while generally striving to synthesize separate statutory provisions into a coherent whole, are not always friends of harmony. In Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879 (1988), the Supreme Court confronted the problem of distinguishing between a proper claim under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) for specific relief (routed to the federal district courts) and a Tucker Act claim for money damages (falling within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Court of Federal Claims). Instead of drawing a bright-line between money and non-money claims - and thus a clear jurisdictional line between the United States District Court and the Court of Federal Claims - the Court adopted a more amorphous case-by-case approach, allowing plaintiffs to frame some claims for monetary relief as falling within the APA framework rather than under the purview of the Tucker Act. Contending that the Bowen v. Massachusetts decision unsettled Tucker Act jurisprudence, unjustifiably expanded specific relief under the APA to include money, and encouraged forum shopping between the District Court and the Court of Federal Claims, the author points to signals of distress from the lower courts and urges renewed judicial attention to this problem. Moreover, the author finds encouraging signs on the judicial front, as the Supreme Court has resisted any extension of Bowen v. Massachusetts to new contexts, and the Federal Circuit has taken a considered step forward in restoring jurisdictional clarity and stability in assignment of claims between judicial institutions. In the interests of efficiency and respect for the institutional strengths of the alternative forums, the invaluable role of the District Court must be respected in nonmonetary cases as well as cases which present an exceptional need for specific relief, and the Court of Federal Claims should be confirmed as the proper and exclusive forum for those types of claims that traditionally have fallen within its judicial franchise. In this way, by preserving the fabric of District Court authority while also restitching the Court of Federal Claims into the cloth, the tapestry of statutory waivers of sovereign immunity may again be made whole.

Keywords: Federal courts, Tucker Act, sovereign immunity, administrative procedure, Court of Federal Claims

Suggested Citation

Sisk, Gregory C., The Tapestry Unravels: Statutory Waivers of Sovereign Immunity and Money Claims Against the United States. George Washington Law Review, Vol. 71, p. 602, 2003. Available at SSRN:

Gregory C. Sisk (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4892 (Phone)

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