Intergovernmental Immunity Doctrine

Intergovernmental Immunity Doctrine

A principle established under Constitutional Law that prevents the federal government and individual state governments from intruding on one another's sovereignty. Intergovernmental immunity is intended to keep government agencies from restricting the rights of other government agencies.

The principle of intergovernmental immunity was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in mcculloch v. maryland, 17 U.S. at 426 (1819), in which Chief Justice John Marshall and his fellow justices ruled unanimously that states may not regulate property or operations of the federal government. (Under Maryland state law, banks not chartered by the state were subject to restrictions and taxes; the state government had attempted to impose these restrictions on the Second Bank of the United States.)The doctrine of intergovernmental immunity is frequently invoked in taxation cases. In Davis v. Michigan Department of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Michigan was in violation of federal law when it exempted state and local government pensions from taxation but levied taxes on federal government pensions. At the time, more than two dozen other states handled federal pensions in a similar manner.

The doctrine also keeps certain federal entities immune from state laws. The Smithsonian Institution is an example. While not a government agency in the strict sense of what that implies, it is considered an "instrumentality of the United States," and thus under federal jurisdiction. Therefore, the Smithsonian can establish charitable gift annuities and similar funding tools without being required to register under the charitable solicitation laws of individual states.

Intergovernmental immunity also governs the taxation of Native Americans living on federal lands, as well as tribal Water Rights.

Further readings

Anzovin, Steven, and Janet Podell, eds. 1988. The U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court. New York: H. W. Wilson.

Immunity of Smithsonian Institution from State Insurance Laws. April 25, 1997. Department of Justice Memorandum. Available online at <> (accessed August 14, 2003).


States' Rights.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Treasury bond is not exempt from the Ohio franchise tax under the intergovernmental immunity doctrine. The court held that USC Section 3124(a) exempts Federal obligations and the interest thereon from state taxation, but not gains from the sale of such obligations arising from the exchange of the obligation between two private parties.
This distinction, however, seems shaky because the intergovernmental immunity doctrine is designed to assure equality between state and federal interests, not between residents and nonresidents.
The Justice Department's second argument concludes with a reference to the "intergovernmental immunity doctrine." (141) The Department claims that this doctrine forbids states from punishing or otherwise directly regulating or impairing federal officials in the performance of their lawful function.(146) Ex parte contacts, the Department contends, fall within the ambit of a federal prosecutor's legitimate law enforcement activities.(147) Thus, the Department argues, states have no right to regulate ex parte contacts of federal law enforcement officials in the first place; doing so violates the intergovernmental immunity doctrine.(148)
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The Department's intergovernmental immunity doctrine argument suffers from circularity as well.
These problems aside, it is not entirely clear how the intergovernmental immunity doctrine furthers the Justice Department's position in the first place.
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