The Supreme Court and Federalism

Updated March 20, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

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.


The Constitution's Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Section 2) sets the Constitution above all forms of law in the United States.


The 10th Amendment declares that the states are governments of reserved powers.


In Fletcher v. Peck the Supreme Court first holds a state law unconstitutional.


The Supreme Court holds that a state cannot tax the federal government in McCulloch v. Maryland.


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.


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.


In Gitlow v. New York the Court rules that the protections of the 1st Amendment apply against actions by state governments.


In Wickard v. Filburn, the Court rules that the federal government has the power to regulate economic activity under the Constitution's Commerce Clause.


The Court holds, in Wesberry v. Sanders, that states must draw congressional districts of nearly equal proportions.


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.


Death penalty statutes are upheld generally by the Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia.


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.


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.


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.


In United States v. Morrison, the Court voted, in a 5-4 decision, that part of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act exceeded congressional power under the Constitution's Commerce Clause and, therefore, was unconstitutional.


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.


In Gonzales v. Raich the Court votes 6-3 that under the Constitution's Commerce Clause, Congress can criminalize the production of cannabis and its use even if states have approved its use for medical purposes.


The Supreme Court rules in favor of upholding the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in Gonzales v. Carhart. The case represents a move toward limiting abortion rights.


The Court rules in Town of Greece v. Galloway that Christian prayers at the beginning of council meetings in an upstate New York town do not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.

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