A Showdown over Scope of Federal Powers US Supreme Court, with a Track Record of Siding with States, Faces Key

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Showdown over Scope of Federal Powers US Supreme Court, with a Track Record of Siding with States, Faces Key


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


An overtime pay dispute between probation officers and the State of Maine is the next major battleground in a conservative crusade at the US Supreme Court to rein in the power of the federal government. Arguments are scheduled tomorrow in a case that some legal analysts say could result in one of the most significant federalism decisions of the 1990s. It is a legal showdown that is much anticipated among conservatives, who see the court as restoring the nation to its proper constitutional order.

Liberals and the court's own moderate justices denounce the court's state-sovereignty agenda as a form of unbridled judicial activism from the right. How far the conservatives are prepared to go is unclear. But the Maine case will offer critical clues. On one level, at stake is roughly $1 million in back pay that workers say they are owed from the state treasury. But the much larger issue is whether Maine - or any state - may be forced to stand trial in its own state courts on charges that the state government violated a federal law. Lawyers for the workers argue that federal labor law is the supreme law of the land and the state must enforce it and obey it. Lawyers for the state counter that Congress overstepped its authority in inviting private citizens to sue states under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Congress intruded into an area of law that should have been reserved exclusively for states, they argue. "The {workers' lawyers} contend that under the supremacy clause, federal law trumps any contrary state law. This is true, of course, when the federal law is valid," writes Maine State Solicitor Peter Brann in his brief to the court. "We contend that the principles of federalism embodied in the history, structure, and language of the Constitution ineluctably leads to the conclusion that this federal law is not valid." The Clinton Labor Department and the US solicitor general have entered the case on the side of the workers. "This court has never permitted a state to insulate itself from the effective operation of a valid federal law, and it should not do so here," the government's brief says. Some legal analysts are concerned that if the court upholds Maine's position it could encourage states to avoid enforcing a wide range of federal laws. "We don't know what the next step is," says Donald Fontaine, a lawyer in Portland, Maine, who argued the case in state courts. "If they make this giant leap, the next leap isn't quite as big." Other analysts say the case is not about avoiding enforcement of laws, but respecting state sovereignty. "A state is supposed to have a special standing in our system," says Anne Hayes of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "If the federal government and Congress can subject the states to private suits, it is a severe encroachment," she says.

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