The Role of the Courts in the Federal System of the United States
Martha A. Field
It is a great honor to participate in this distinguished Conference. My assignment is to discuss the role of courts in the U.S. political system. I will not draw many comparative analogies with the systems of the sovereign states of the former Soviet Union, but I will discuss features about the role courts have played here that would seem relevant to other nations or confederations embarked upon developing a federal system.
The first and foremost role of the national courts in our federal system is to interpret and enforce national law. The federal judiciary, headed by the United States Supreme Court, is the branch that makes federal law supreme, enforcing it against states and adjudicating when state laws are in violation of federal constitutional or statutory law. The federal judiciary has played this role rather successfully over the course of our history, even though it has aptly been called "the least dangerous branch," having neither military nor monetary resources of its own. Its success has been made possible by acquiescence and sometimes active cooperation of the executive and legislative branches of government. 1
Our national courts pass on the meaning of national law but do not review what state law means. They decide whether state law is permissible under the federal Constitution, but as long as it is within constitutional limits, the state and its courts have the last word on interpretation of state law. To us this system seems almost axiomatic--almost inherent to federalism. But it is worth noting that it is not a universal feature of federalism. In Canada's federal system, provincial law is much less clearly separated from national law and its meaning is subject to review by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The separateness of state law in this country has another consequence that is of particular relevance today. States cannot have laws that contradict federal law or the federal Constitution, but they are permitted to create bodies of state