While the Tenth Amendment provides states, or the people, reserved powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution or prohibited by it to the states, the courts have shifted in the interpretation of this amendment over time, sometimes moving toward a strict constructionist view and protecting states’ rights and at other times taking an expansive view of federal powers. However, these shifting interpretations are usually incremental and historically disparate. In Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985), the Supreme Court made a strong redirection on federalism in interpreting the Tenth Amendment.
In a 5–4 vote in Garcia, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled its decision in National League of Cities v. Usery (1976), which had said that the individual states were not subject to wage and hour protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act as applied “in areas of traditional governmental functions.” The Garcia Court, however, found that defining “traditional governmental functions” was a major task for the various courts. As such, it found National League an unworkable standard and rejected this balancing approach of determining whether an issue being regulated by Congress affected an individual state’s traditional governmental functions.
In replacing the balancing approach, the Garcia Court determined that individual states were protected from inappropriate federal regulations against the states by their participation in the federal political process. In other words, each state has elected U.S. senators and representatives who are expected to protect the state’s interests and rights. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority that these “political safeguards,” and particularly that of the states’ representation in the Senate, were sufficient constitutional safeguards of states’ rights. It was therefore presumed by the majority that the legislative process will work properly and therefore the courts will give great deference to the actions of Congress when it is a matter of regulating both states and private entities.
The dissent in Garcia argued that despite the claim of the majority opinion that this ruling secured the concept of federalism, the reality was that the Tenth Amendment was effectively reduced to “meaningless rhetoric” as to issues involving the Commerce Clause. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in dissent remarked that “the Court today surveys the battle scene of federalism, and sounds a retreat.” Federalism scholar Thomas Anton remarked, “Important and thoughtful as the Garcia ruling may be, we should not imagine that it signifies the end to the debate [over federalism]” (Anton 1989, 16). And John Kincaid accused the Court of abandoning “the field, abdicating its role as umpire of the federal system” (Kincaid 1993, 172). Indeed, the prediction of Justice William Rehnquist in his dissent that Garcia would not hold and that the respect for state sovereignty expressed in National League would again “in time command a majority of this Court” (Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority 469 U.S. 528 ) was soon to be fulfilled in the enduring federalism debate.
Thomas Anton, American Federalism and Public Policy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); Mark R. Killenbeck, The Tenth Amendment and State Sovereignty: Constitutional History and Contemporary Issues (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); John Kincaid, “Constitutional Federalisms Labor’s Role in Displacing Places to Benefit Persons,” P.S. Political Science and Politics 26, no. 2 (June 1993): 172; and Tinsley E. Yarbrough, The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).