Power Tilts Further toward States the Supreme Court, in a Series of Far-Reaching Decisions, Reaffirms

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

Power Tilts Further toward States the Supreme Court, in a Series of Far-Reaching Decisions, Reaffirms


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


The conservative wing of the US Supreme Court has taken another major step in reordering the power balance between the states and federal government.

And it has demonstrated its resolve to pursue an aggressive federalist agenda that seeks to rein in the power of the national government when, in the majority's view, it impermissibly treads on state sovereignty.

The action came in decisions rendered in three cases on Wednesday - two involving a lawsuit by a New Jersey company against a Florida tuition savings program, and one involving a federal labor law dispute between probation officers and the state of Maine. In all three, the essential issue was whether state sovereignty trumps federal power when individuals seek to hold states accountable under federal laws. In all three, the same five-justice majority sided with the states. "It certainly seems to be continuing the trend in favor of states' rights," says Richard Seamon, law professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. In the Florida cases, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the 11th Amendment to the US Constitution bars an individual from suing a state for infringement of federal patent laws. The court also ruled 5 to 4 that states are immune from federal jurisdiction outlawing false advertising and that states do not automatically waive that immunity when they engage in national, competitive market-oriented activities. In the Maine case, the court ruled 5 to 4 that Congress doesn't have the power to force state compliance with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. It said such action would violate the principles of state sovereignty. The immunity applies even against federal suits filed in state court. In announcing the majority's decision in the Maine case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the opinion rested on "a settled doctrinal understanding ... that sovereign immunity derives not from the 11th Amendment but from the structure of the Constitution itself." "We seek to discover ... only what the Framers and those who ratified the Constitution sought to accomplish...," the decision says. "Theirs was the unique insight that freedom is enhanced by the creation of two governments, not one." The decision marks an important extension of the court's 1996 landmark ruling in a case involving the Florida Seminole Indian tribe. In that case, the court ruled that Congress could not authorize individuals to sue states in federal court for violations of federal law. Wednesday's decision spreads the immunity to state courts as well. "The court could not be more fundamentally mistaken about the nature of the federal relationship," said Justice David Souter, speaking in dissent shortly after the Maine decision was announced. He said there is no historical evidence that the legal concepts supporting the majority's view in the Maine case were held by the Founding Fathers. Throughout the 1990s, the same five-justice majority led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist has championed the cause of state sovereignty in the face of an ever expanding tangle of federal regulations and laws. "The court ... has really struck a serious blow to property interests," says David Todd, a lawyer who argued one of the Florida cases. …

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