Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Understanding Federalism


Larry Kramer

First Page



It's necessary to begin with considering the sort of judicially enforced federalism rejected in Garcia and to consider why the Court rejected it. According to this view of federalism, the Constitution leaves certain substantive affairs exclusively to the states, and what matters is making sure that states can regulate these without federal interference. So long as this domain is protected, the political significance of states is assured and federalism is secure. The federal government can, if it chooses, take charge of all those matters as to which state and federal authority is concurrent-though Congress will find this harder to accomplish when faced with the states' enhanced ability to muster political support. In any event, the key to a viable federalism is said to be the guarantee of judicially-enforced substantive limits on national authority.

We begin with this approach to federalism because, while courts may not resolve every conflict between state and national authorities, they can simplify such problems by delimiting the sphere in which power is allocated through politics. And, indeed, many commentators believe the Supreme Court was wrong to abandon the task of defining a protected sphere of exclusive state jurisdiction.16 After the surrender of 1937 and after Garcia, they say, federalism is "dead," Congress is free to run berserk, and it's only a matter of time until the states lose what little political clout they have left and are rendered superfluities by a relentless federal juggernaut.

We can say one thing for sure: The problem with judicially enforced federalism is not, as Justice Blackmun suggests in Garcia, that the Framers didn't want courts enforcing limits on national authority. Making statements about the Framers' intent is, of course, always hazardous. Because the relevant decision makers were the people who ratified the Constitution,17 deciding what the Constitution was intended to mean is as quixotic as interpreting election returns-- too many people chose among too few options for too many reasons (most without telling us those reasons) to draw firm conclusions. And, of course, these particular "returns" are more than two centuries old and so that much more difficult to interpret. Still, there does seem to have been wide consensus on a few issues, among them that the powers of the national government were to be limited and that courts would play a role in policing the limits.