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1.8 Constitutional Interpretations of Federalism

7 min readjanuary 29, 2023

Annika Tekumulla

Annika Tekumulla

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
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Federalism is the division of power between a central government and constituent political units, such as states in the US. The Constitution of the US defines the relationship between the national government and state governments and outlines the powers of each. The interpretation of the Constitution's provisions on federalism has been a source of debate and has shaped the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
Key Supreme Court cases, such as McCulloch v. Maryland and US v. Lopez, have established principles that have impacted the interpretation of federalism. The McCulloch v. Maryland case confirmed the principle of federal supremacy, which states that federal law is supreme over state law in the event of a conflict, and confirmed the authority of the national government to use its implied powers in order to carry out its enumerated powers. US v. Lopez limited Congress' power to regulate non-economic activities that did not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, helping to define the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
Together, these cases and other constitutional interpretations of federalism have shaped the ongoing debate over the balance of power between the national and state governments and serve as a reminder of the complex interplay between federal and state powers in the US.

Key Vocabulary

  • Commerce Clause: A clause in the US Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate commerce between states and with foreign nations.
  • Dual Federalism: A system of government in which both the national and state governments exercise separate and distinct powers and responsibilities, with the national government responsible for some areas of governance and the states responsible for others.
  • Enumerated Powers: The powers specifically listed in the US Constitution that are granted to the national government.
  • Fourteenth Amendment: An amendment to the US Constitution that was added after the Civil War and prohibits states from denying any person "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" and requires equal protection under the law.
  • Implied Powers: Powers that are inferred from the specific powers listed in the US Constitution, such as the power to charter a national bank, that are necessary for the federal government to carry out its enumerated powers effectively.
  • Cooperative Federalism: A system of government in which the national and state governments work together to carry out shared responsibilities and duties, with the national government providing support and funding to the states.

Necessary and Proper Clause

The Necessary and Proper Clause, also known as the Elastic Clause, is found in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution and gives Congress the authority to make laws that are "necessary and proper" for carrying out its enumerated powers. This clause has allowed Congress to pass laws that are not explicitly stated in the Constitution but are deemed necessary to carry out its responsibilities. The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause broadly, giving Congress significant discretion in determining what laws are necessary and proper.
However, this interpretation has also led to ongoing debates over the balance of power between the national and state governments, as some argue that the Necessary and Proper Clause has been used to expand the power of the federal government beyond what was originally intended.

Example

Example: The federal government enacts a law creating a national park system to protect and preserve natural and cultural resources. This law gives the National Park Service the authority to regulate activities within the parks, including hunting, fishing, and camping. The Necessary and Proper Clause is used to justify this law, as the power to create and regulate national parks is considered "necessary and proper" to carry out the powers granted to the federal government under the Constitution, such as the power to regulate commerce and to own and manage federal lands.

Amendments

The powers of the national and state governments are further defined and debated in the Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution.

Tenth

The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution states that powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited to the states, are reserved for the states or the people. This amendment serves as a reminder of the limited powers of the federal government and reinforces the idea of federalism, where powers are divided between the national and state governments.

Example

Tenth Amendment Example: A state passes a law legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, which conflicts with federal drug laws that prohibit the drug. The federal government sues the state, but the state argues that the Tenth Amendment gives them the right to regulate medical practices within their borders.

Fourteenth

The Fourteenth Amendment, on the other hand, addresses the balance of power between the national and state governments in a different way. It ensures that citizens have equal protection under the law, regardless of what state they live in, and that the national government can intervene when states are denying citizens their rights. This amendment has been used by the Supreme Court to strike down state laws that violate individual liberties and to expand federal power in areas such as voting rights and discrimination.

Example

Fourteenth Amendment Example: A city passes a law requiring all businesses to close on Sundays for religious reasons, but a group of non-religious business owners argue that the law violates their rights to freely exercise their religion or non-religion. The business owners sue the city, alleging a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.
Together, the Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments provide a framework for understanding the balance of power between the national and state governments in the US and continue to shape the ongoing debate over the proper role of government in protecting individual rights and preserving federalism.

Supreme Court Cases

The Supreme Court cases of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and United States v. Lopez (1995) are considered important landmarks in understanding the balance of power between the states and the national government in the US.
McCulloch v. Maryland was a case that dealt with the interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause of the US Constitution, which gives Congress the power to make all laws "necessary and proper" to carry out its powers. The case challenged the constitutionality of the Second Bank of the United States and dealt with the power of the states to tax a federal institution. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the national government, establishing the principle that the national government has broad, implied powers to carry out its functions.
As for United States v. Lopez, as previously mentioned, the Supreme Court's decision limited Congress' power to regulate non-economic activities that did not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. This decision marked a shift in the interpretation of the Commerce Clause and helped define the balance of power between the states and the national government.
Both of these cases have had a lasting impact on the understanding of the balance of power between the states and the national government in the US and continue to shape the interpretation of the Constitution.

McCulloch v. Maryland

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) was a landmark Supreme Court case that confirmed the principle of federal supremacy and established the authority of the national government to use its implied powers.
In the case, the state of Maryland attempted to tax the Bank of the United States, which was chartered by Congress. The Supreme Court ruled that this tax was unconstitutional because it impeded on the power of the federal government to carry out its duties.
The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland was significant because it strengthened the power of the national government and confirmed the principle of federal supremacy. It confirmed that Congress has implied powers, in addition to its enumerated powers, to carry out its responsibilities effectively and established that federal law is supreme over state law in the event of a conflict.
This case has had lasting implications for the balance of power between the national and state governments and continues to be cited in modern legal debates over the scope of federal power. It is considered a key decision in American legal history and has helped define the balance of power between the federal government and the states.

US v. Lopez

US v. Lopez (1995) was a landmark Supreme Court case that dealt with the scope of the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution. The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce between states and with foreign nations. In this case, the federal government had enacted the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which made it illegal to possess a firearm in a school zone.
The defendant, Alfonso Lopez, Jr., was charged with violating the act after he brought a handgun to school. He argued that the act was unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress' power under the Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that the act did not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce and thus was beyond the scope of the Commerce Clause.
The decision in US v. Lopez was important because it marked a shift in the interpretation of the Commerce Clause and limited Congress' power to regulate non-economic activities that did not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. This case established the principle that there are limits to the Commerce Clause and helped define the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
🎥 Watch: AP GOPO - Types of Federalism

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