Throughout several the previous articles, the Tenth Amendment has been used as a defense against ever expanding congressional authority. When the courts wished to expand the power of the commerce clause, the Tenth Amendment was the largest argument. Many of these arguments persists with the expansion of the taxing, spending, and treaty powers.

With this expansion, the question becomes, “when does the Tenth Amendment actually reserve state rights?” In other words, “how can we tell which powers are retained by the federal government or the states?”

Garcia v. San Antonia Metropolitan Transit Authority

469 U.S. 528 (1985).


States retain sovereign authority under the Tenth Amendment but “only to the extent that the Constitution has not divested them of their original powers and transferred those powers to the Federal Government.”


Here, the traditional functions test is unworkable.


There was a case in 1976 called the National League of Cities v. Usery. Garcia overrules that case. In Usery, the court held that although the state governmental employees affected interstate commerce, Fair Labor Standards Act could not be enforced against them (being state employees). The test adopted then was the “traditional governmental functions.”

The reasoning? State sovereignty is better protected by procedural safeguards than on judicial limitations on federal power. In other words, the procedural safeguards of the Constitution are objective while judicial opinions are subjective (as to what are traditional state functions).

However, the dissent argues that the federal government is not fit to regulate traditional state functions. The federal government often enacts large and complex litigation. The passage of this litigation is often done without consideration for local governments. As such, local governments have a large amount of understanding of local affairs while the federal government does not.

Additional Notes

The act in question said that state workers had to have federal minimum wage laws. In other words this is a state sovereignty case. Before Garcia, there were two other cases, each about 10 years apart, that kept coming before the court. Warts, said the statute was alright, National League of Cities says the statute is wrong, Garcia goes back to accepting the statute.

First point of interest: the Court attacks on National League of Cities was that the words, “traditional,” “integral,” or “necessary” do not have meaning in this case. This reading does not leave the states vulnerable because the Constitution gave states power. Additionally, the Court relies on the federal government to not override the states because the federal government is dependent on the states (process based federalism, “trust the process”).

Second point of interest: the dissent argues that State’s know what their budget is, and what should be done with that budget. The federal government does not have that information. In other words, the dissent’s argument is a federalism argument. O’Connor continues to say that there is purpose to the 10th Amendment and that the federal government often fails to exercise self-restraint.

Although Garcia is technically the law, several parts of the case are no longer applicable thanks to New York and Printz.

Note again that there are two parts to every Constitutional Law case. First, what is the applicable test (here, there was no test)? Second, who gets to decide the effect of the test (Courts or Congress)?

New York v. United States

505 U.S. 144 (1992).


Is the statute a valid exercise of Congress’s power?


The Tenth Amendment restrains Congress. Congress cannot act for the states.


The first two provisions of the Act in question is a fine exercise of Congress’s authority, but the last is not.


Congress passed the Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1986. One of the main purposes of the act were to limit the amount of radioactive waste that accumulated by development. Because many states failed to manage the waste themselves, South Carolina being one of the only states to manage, Congress provided three “incentives” to encourage management.

First, South Carolina could have a charge a surcharge for the management of out-of-state management which would be given to the government to help the other states implement programs.

Second, eventually S.C. could close their management to out of state waste.

Third, States would have to “take title” of the waste they choose not to dispose. Because they would have ownership of that waste, they would be subject to federal regulation.


The first two are valid exercises of Congress’s commerce, taxing, and spending powers. However, the final provision overreaches Congressional authority.

“Congress may not simply commandeer the legislative processes of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.”

This compulsion occurs when Congress passes a line from encouragement to coercion.

Additional Notes

Background: No state wants to take ownership for their radioactive waste. So, the point of the argument was to allow the federal government to make the states take ownership if they do not control the problem in their state.

The takeaway: Congress is commandeering the work of state legislatures. In other words, Congress is commanding the state legislatures to pass a law to control the problem. Congress does not have the power to pass the program, then pass responsibility to the states.

Here’s what this would look like if it was allowed:

  1. The federal government would require the states to take care of the problem
    1. If the law works out:
      1. Congress gets all the credit
      2. States get none of the credit
    2. If the law does not work out:
      1. States get all the blame
      2. Federal government gets none of the blame.

So, Congress is not allowed to require the states to do the work who gets none of the credit or take all of the blame. There is a “line in the sand” where Congress is not allowed to cross.

Printz v. United States

521 U.S. 898 (1997).


Congress cannot compel states to enforce federal programs.


The Brady Act is unconstitutional.


This case is about the Brady Act, which required national instant background checks for weapon purchases. Before the Act was passed, background checks in some states took about 3-5 business days before a sale could be completed. However, this Act required state officials to instantly instigate programs to complete the background checks.


This Act is an improper method of solving an issue. If the act were implemented, the federal government would be able to ask states to incur the cost of implementation and then take credit for “solving” the issue without raising federal taxes. In other words, states would have the cost but no benefit of implementation.

However, the dissent refutes this saying that all the states would have to do was inform constituents about the Brady Act as the cause for the higher taxes.

Additional Notes

The argument that this is not a commandeering task is because the task was trivial (simple job of checking the computer to see if the person passes the background check). However, the Court says that this is a commandeering task because of the accountability analysis in New York. Additionally, this is not a trivial task (the sheriff no longer has the ability to choose what tasks they follow).

The three strands of federalism:

  1. Commerce Clause
  2. 11th Amendment
  3. Commandeering


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Will Laursen

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