Federalism and the Supreme Court

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Federalism and the Supreme Court

"The powers delegated. . .to the federal government are few and defined. . . .The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."

---James Madison, The Federalist Papers #45

Since the establishment of judicial review in Marbury vs. Madison , the Supreme Court has been charged with the role of mediator. The Court arbitrates disputes between the individual and government, between the constitution and statuary law, and, within a constitutional framework, determines the allocation of power between states and the national government. The issue of federalism has occupied the Court's docket since its inception and continues to do so today. The Court's reaction to it has greatly altered over time as both the composition of the Court and the political mind-set of the country have shifted.

The tenth amendment of the U.S. constitution reads:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This amendment is the looking glass through which the issue of federalism is most often viewed. In the early decisions of the Court, with the notable exception of Marbury vs. Madison , the Marshall Court ruled heavily in favor of an expansive view of the tenth amendment and granted the states as much latitude as possible within the framework of the new constitution. Many of the Marshall Court's decisions were regarded with contempt since they ran contrary to the Hamiltonian flow of public opinion.

Like a child beginning kindergarten, the government was just starting out, just beginning to explore new areas. The states were accustomed to their independence and their individual constitutions. The imposition of a federal government, although not entirely unwelcome, was at best uncomfortable. The Marshall Court was forced to reconcile the desire for state autonomy with the need for federal government. Marshall himself demonstrated the embodiment of this conflict as he was required to balance his personal Hamiltonian belief in a strong national government with the degree of federalism he thought the states could abide.

The Courts of the 19th century took a decidedly pro-active role when it came to securing the states' tenth amendment rights.

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