Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Article I, Section 8: Federalism and the overall scope of federal power

July 6, 2016 by Randy E. Barnett And Heather Gerken


As part of the National Constitution Center’s on-going Interactive Constitution project, leading constitutional experts interact with each other to explore the Constitution’s history and what it means today. In this discussion, Randy E. Barnett of the Georgetown University Law Center and Heather Gerken of Yale Law School find common ground on the overall evolution of federalism.ic_logo307In practice, federalism has waxed and waned since the founding, and federal-state relations have always been contested. Nonetheless, federalism underwent four distinct phases during four different eras in our constitutional history: post-Founding, post-Civil War, post-New Deal, and from the Rehnquist Court to today.Enumerated Powers Federalism

In 1787, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation—which was essentially a treaty among sovereign states—with a new constitution ratified by the people themselves in state conventions rather than by state legislatures. The Founders provided the national government with powers it lacked under the Articles and ensured it would be able to act on behalf of the citizenry directly without going through the state governments. But the Founders also thought it important to preserve the states’ power over their own citizens.

The Founders struck this balance by granting the new national government only limited and enumerated powers and leaving the regulation of intrastate commerce to the states. State legislative powers were almost exclusively limited by their own constitutions.

Federalism at the Founding can therefore best be described as “Enumerated Powers Federalism.” The national government was conceived as one of limited and enumerated powers. The powers of states were simply everything left over after that enumeration. This is expressed in the first words of Article I, which created Congress: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” The Tenth Amendment reinforces this principle: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” State power, then, was protected not by affirmatively shielding state power, but by limiting the ability of the federal government to act in the first place.

Fundamental Rights Federalism

Federalism changed in the wake of the Civil War. The Republicans in the Thirty-Eighth Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment, eliminating the power of states to enforce slavery within their borders. But Southern states almost immediately used the rest of their vast police powers to enact Black Codes to oppress the newly freed slaves. Their aim was to come as closely as possible to restoring slavery in everything but name.

In response to this, the Republicans in the Thirty-Ninth Congress used their Thirteenth Amendment enforcement power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Although they overrode the veto of President Johnson by super-majorities in both houses, some in Congress saw the need to write these protections into the Constitution lest courts question Congress’s power to enact the Civil Rights Act.

The Republicans thus created the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1 forbade states from violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens, placing new federal constraints on all three branches of state governments. Section 5 granted Congress the power to enforce those constraints. With the passage of the 14th Amendment, the federal government could now prevent states from violating the privileges and immunities of their citizens; depriving anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process; and denying anyone equal protection. Following on its heels, a similar provision was enacted to prevent states from denying citizens the right to vote based on their race. The Reconstruction Amendments, taken together, thus ushered in what we can call “Fundamental Rights Federalism.”

Soon after its enactment, however, the Supreme Court systematically neutered the Fundamental Rights Federalism of the Reconstruction Amendments through such cases as The Slaughter-House Cases (1873),U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875), The Civil Rights Cases (1883), Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), and Giles v. Harris (1903). As a result, the powers accorded to the federal government lay dormant until the Court and Congress took them up again in the early Twentieth Century to protect economic liberties in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905) andBuchanan v. Warley (1917). Eventually, beginning in the 1930s until today, the Court largely withdrew from this area in favor of to protecting so-called “fundamental rights” and the civil rights of “suspect classes” like racial minorities.

New Deal Federalism

With the New Deal, the Court expanded federal regulatory power. Relying primarily on the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause to expand Congress’s reach, the Court effectively brought about the demise of the Enumerated Powers Federalism of the Founding Era. The Court interpreted Article I to give Congress the power to regulate wholly intrastate economic activity that substantially affects interstate commerce. Because the scope and importance of the national economy had vastly outpaced the vision of interstate commerce held by the Founders, the power to regulate anything that affects interstate commerce amounts to the power to regulate almost everything. As a result, the federal government could now regulate in areas once governed exclusively by the states. It could even regulate the states themselves. So what becomes of the states in the wake of New Deal Federalism?

State Sovereignty Federalism

Enter the Rehnquist Court. After William Rehnquist became Chief Justice in 1986, the Court began developing what came to be known as the “New Federalism,” but which in this story could be called “State Sovereignty Federalism.”

First came the Court’s so-called Tenth Amendment cases of New York v. United States (1992), Gregory v. Ashcroft (1991), and Printz v. United States (1997). In each of these cases, the Court attempted to carve out a zone of state autonomy that the federal government could not invade. States were thus shielded from federal regulation in a fashion that private parties were not. Then came the Eleventh Amendment cases of Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996) and Alden v. Maine(1999), immunizing states from some lawsuits in federal court in order to preserve their sovereign status.

The Rehnquist Court later began tentatively to revive Enumerated Powers Federalism in cases like United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000). Pushing back against New Deal Federalism, the Court continued to license federal regulation of wholly intrastate economic activity that had a substantial effect on interstate commerce while drawing a line at the regulation of noneconomic intrastate activity.

The Roberts Court has now taken up the mantle. Like its predecessor, it has continued both to (1) invoke state sovereignty to preserve a zone of state autonomy, and (2) build out a modern version of enumerated powers federalism by interpreting the New Deal federalism as the “high water mark” of federal power such that federal powers cannot be expanded still further without a limiting principle. The first strategy places external limits on Congress’s power, marking where Congress’s power ends by identifying where state power begins and using sovereignty as a touchstone. The second derives those limits internally without reference to the states. But both are efforts to cut back on the expansive view of federal power that had evolved in the wake of the New Deal and thereby preserve a zone of autonomy for the states.

Further Reading:

Matters of Debate

To learn more about what these scholars of different perspectives agree upon, and what they disagree about, go to our Interactive Constitution section page about these provisions. These experts were selected with the guidance of leaders of two prominent constitutional law organizations—The American Constitution Society and The Federalist Society. This project is sponsored by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.


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