The Government of the United States has long benefited from two canons of statutory construction that tip the scales of justice heavily in its direction in civil litigation by those seeking redress of harm by that government: First, the federal government’s consent to suit must be expressed through unequivocal statutory text. Second, even when a statute explicitly waives federal sovereign immunity for a subject matter, the traditional rule has been that the terms of that statute “must be construed strictly in favor of the sovereign.” The restrictive effect of these rules has made a distinct difference in cases that truly matter to the lives and well-being of ordinary people.
Since the dawn of the new century, however, the Supreme Court’s increasingly common encounters with waivers of federal sovereign immunity are also becoming more conventional in interpretive attitude. During the first eleven years of the twenty-first century, the Court turned a deaf ear to the government’s plea for special solicitude in the substantial majority of instances and frequently declared that the canon of strict construction was unhelpful or ill-suited. In four sovereign immunity cases decided in the 2012 Term, the Court continued to evidence a commitment to text, context, and legislative history, unblemished by any presumption of narrow construction. Notably during oral arguments in this most recent term, multiple members of the Court openly challenged the government’s reach for broader immunity.
In these recent decisions, the Court increasingly accepts a dichotomy between the threshold question of whether sovereign immunity has been waived (requiring a “clear statement” by Congress) and the inquiry into how the statutory waiver should be interpreted in application (with the canon of strict construction fading away as a viable tool for statutory interpretation).