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National League of Cities v. Usery (1976)

Last Updated: 2006

The Tenth Amendment has long been the constitutional cornerstone of “states’ rights” and there are numerous cases dealing with the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From the New Deal era until National League of Cities v. Usery was decided in 1976, the cases decided by the Supreme Court had protected and extended Congress’s legislation enacted to affect, either directly or indirectly, the individual states in the area of labor and wage policy. And, as Walter Berns (1963, 132) has so aptly noted, the Court increasingly regarded the Tenth Amendment as an “accessory to interpretation.” This view of national supremacy via the Commerce Clause dominated federalism jurisprudence throughout the period and was reflected in the precedents affected by National League of Cities.

In National League of Cities v. Usery, the Court overruled Maryland v. Wirtz (1968) in part, and held that the Congress could not impose wage and hour protections through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for state employees on the states or their political subdivisions. The case arose from a 1974 federal law designed to increase the minimum wage and to remove certain exemptions from FLSA, including those exempting state and local governments. Though similar legislation was vetoed in 1973, federalism scholar Martha Derthick notes that “President Nixon’s successful veto of it in 1973 rested mainly on the grounds that it would contribute to inflation and unemployment and harm the disadvantaged . . . [Federalism] entered late and only incidentally to his veto message” (2001, 57). The National League of Cities ruling recognized that Congress has the power to regulate wage laws under the Commerce Clause& and certainly can apply the FLSA to businesses or other private corporations within states. But as the Court said in National League of Cities, “It is quite another to uphold a similar exercise of congressional authority directed, not to private citizens, but to the States as States.” Thus, for constitutional federalism, the Court affirmed “States as States” as a critical “attribute of sovereignty attaching to every state government.”

National League of Cities had a relatively short run as precedent. After nine years in which the Court attempted to differentiate “traditional” or “essential” state functions to determine which are protected by the Tenth Amendment from federal encroachment, National League of Cities was overruled by Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985).

SEE ALSO: Commerce among the StatesGarcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority


Walter Berns, “The Meaning of the Tenth Amendment,” in A Nation of States, ed. Robert A. Goldwin (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963); Martha Derthick, Keeping The Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001); Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528 (1985); Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968); Robert F. Nagel, “Federalism as a Fundamental Value: National League of Cities in Perspective,” Supreme Court Review (1981): 81–109; and National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976).