Redefining Federalism | The Enduring Constitution: Redefining Federalism

Updated July 22, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Magruders: Government and Economics in Action

The Enduring Constitution: Redefining Federalism

The framers of the Constitution sought to balance the rights of the several states and the powers of the new federal government. Their solution was a federal system, which divides powers between the two levels of government. Although the Constitution is the "supreme law of the land," conflicts over states' rights versus national power have arisen throughout American history.
1789 The Constitution's Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Section 2) sets the Constitution above all forms of law in the United States.
1791 The 10th Amendment declares that the states are governments of reserved powers.
1810 In Fletcher v. Peck the Supreme Court first holds a state law unconstitutional.
1819The Supreme Court holds that a state cannot tax the federal government in McCulloch v. Maryland.
1824 Gibbons v. Ogden is the first commerce clause case to reach the Supreme Court. In its ruling the Court affirms the federal government's right to regulate interstate trade and lays out a broad definition of commerce that extends federal authority.
1886 In Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway Co. v. Illinois (Wabash Case), the Court rules that states cannot regulate railroad rates on the parts of interstate journeys that fall within their borders.
1925 In Gitlow v. New York the Court rules that the protections of the 1st Amendment apply against actions by state governments.
1964 The Court holds, in Wesberry v. Sanders, that states must draw congressional districts of nearly equal proportions.
1972 In Furman v. Georgia the Court rules that all existing death penalty laws violate the Constitution. The Court cited "arbitrariness" and racial imbalances in the application of death sentences. As a consequence, many states rewrite their death penalty laws.
1976 Death penalty statutes are upheld generally by the Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia.
1995 In United States v. Lopez, the Court strikes down the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990 on the grounds that the federal government invades reserved powers of the states with this legislation.
1997 In Printz v. United States the Court strikes down the provision of the federal Brady Act requiring states to check the background of handgun buyers.
2000 The Court's unanimous decision in Reno v. Condon approves a federal law preventing states from selling databases of personal information (the Driver's Privacy Protection Act) on the grounds that this is proper federal regulation of interstate commerce.
2003 In Nevada v. Hibbs the Court holds that a state worker can sue the state for money damages for its failure to obey the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The decision is a break from the court's recent tendency to expand states' rights.
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