Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police

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In Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office.[1] As such, the Court held this is no different from a suit against the State itself.[2]

In dictum, the Court noted that a state official in his or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, would be a person under Section 1983 because "official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S., at 167, n. 14; Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 159-160 (1908). This distinction is "commonplace in sovereign immunity doctrine," L. Tribe, American Constitutional Law § 3-27, p. 190, n. 3 (2d ed. 1988), and would not have been foreign to the 19th century Congress that enacted Section 1983, see, e.g., In re Ayers, 123 U.S. 443, 506-507 (1887); United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 219-222 (1882); Board of Liquidation v. McComb, 92 U.S. 531, 541 (1876); Osborn v. Bank of United States, 9 Wheat. 738 (1824).

The Court noted that City of Kenosha v. Bruno, 412 U.S. 507, 513 (1973), is not to the contrary. That case involved municipal liability under § 1983, and the fact that nothing in § 1983 suggests its "bifurcated application to municipal corporations depending on the nature of the relief sought against them," 412 U.S., at 513, is not surprising, since by the time of the enactment of § 1983 municipalities were no longer protected by sovereign immunity. Supra, at 67-68, n. 7.

Justice Byron White, writing for the Court, held that neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are "persons" under Section 1983, and he affirmed the judgment of the Michigan Supreme Court.


  1. Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471 (1985).
  2. See, e.g., Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-166 (1985); Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978).