Tug of war between nation and states
1787 - A proposed constitution of the United States is drafted in Philadelphia. It calls for a national government of limited powers with all remaining powers residing with the states or the people.
1793 - In Chisholm v. Georgia, the US Supreme Court rules that a citizen of South Carolina may sue the state of Georgia without its consent. The decision brings immediate outcry from supporters of state sovereignty. Congress responds with the 11th Amendment to the Constitution. Ratified in 1795, it reads in part: "The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit ... against one of the United States by Citizens of another State...."
1819 - In McCulloch v. Maryland, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall rules that the federal government has the power to incorporate a national bank. Opponents had argued that nothing in the Constitution explicitly permits creation of such a bank, an area traditionally regulated by the states. The decision opens the way for expansive interpretations of the national government's "enumerated powers" - much to the alarm of states' rights advocates.
1860s - Slavery and the US Civil War test the limits of state versus national power. The Southern states refuse to abide by federal dictates, claiming they infringe upon the sovereignty of their state governments. The Union prevails under force of arms.
1868 - The 14th Amendment is ratified. It is a federal command to the states - particularly the Southern states - that they are barred from passing state laws that infringe the equal protection and due process of any citizen, including freed slaves. It is a step forward for civil rights and the imposition of federal power at the expense of the states.
1913 - The 16th Amendment passes, establishing a national income tax. This sets the stage for the growth of the federal government by providing a guaranteed source of revenue through direct taxation of the people.
1913 - The 17th Amendment passes, establishing a system in which US senators are elected by voters in their home state rather than by the state legislature, as initially required by the Constitution. No longer are US senators beholden to state officials, a development that significantly weakens state power to influence or block national legislation that might threaten the position of the states.
1937 - After threats by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pack the Supreme Court with new appointees, the justices approve New Deal legislation that greatly expands the reach of the federal government to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. World War II and the resulting military mobilization lead to further expansion of federal power into areas traditionally reserved to the states.
1954 - In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that separate but equal segregation violates the Constitution and orders states to admit black students to white schools. Some Southern states protest and vow to resist federal intrusion into state and local policies.
1985 - In Garcia v. San Antonio Metro Transit Authority, the Supreme Court rules that federal wage and hour restrictions apply to state agencies. In determining whether Congress is empowered to pass such laws under the Commerce Clause, the court announces that the political process itself is the only bar to imposing federal regulations on state agencies. The decision establishes that the only check on the spread of federal power at the expense of the states is the self-restraint of Congress.
1995 - In US v. Lopez, the Supreme Court strikes down the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, saying Congress exceeded its authority to regulate interstate commerce when it attempted to dictate to local officials how to deal with guns near schools. The ruling marks the first time in 60 years the high court has restricted congressional use of the Commerce Clause to enact legislation in areas traditionally reserved to the states.
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