Xavier Cortada, “Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida,” acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 36″, 2004

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Chapter 10: Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida

Sovereignty and the Eleventh Amendment Imag(in)ed

Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996)


The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as ratified in the 1790s, reflects an abiding commitment to the idea that the states of the Union were entitled as sovereigns to a measure of immunity from suit in federal court. Xavier Cortada’s painting nicely captures the conflicting ideas of sovereignty that were embedded in that Amendment. In his painting of one leading modern judicial interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment, the Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, Cortada allows us to see state sovereignty both as a restriction on the sovereign power of Congress and as a special form of state power to deny the competing sovereignty claims of Native people. One finds in Cortada’s depiction of a tattered Native jacket both the imprint of the Eleventh Amendment and the weight of an indigenous people’s history.


“Above all, the painting forces us to reckon with conflicting ideas of sovereignty, a status that will strike many as wholly out of place in a government of and by the people, but one to which all three governments depicted in the painting – federal, state, and tribal – have long laid claim.”


James E. Pfander is Owen L. Coon Professor of Law at Northwestern University. He holds a J.D. from the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the federal courts including Constitutional Torts and the War on Terror (2017) and One Supreme Court: Supremacy, Inferiority, and the Judicial Power of the United States (2009).


Xavier Cortada is Professor of Practice at the University of Miami Department of Art and Art History. He grew up in Miami and holds degrees from the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, School of Law, and Graduate School of Business. His work merges art with other disciplines, including law, science, and politics.