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The 10th Amendment: Definition, Summary & Examples

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  • 0:01 Defining the 10th Amendment
  • 1:06 Constitutional Cases
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The 10th Amendment was added to the Constitution to assure reluctant delegates that the Federal Government would not overstep its boundaries. It specifies the federal system in the United States. Very few federal laws, however, are overturned because of the 10th Amendment.

Defining the 10th Amendment

The 10th Amendment is the final amendment in the United States Constitution's original Bill of Rights. It was added to assure delegates from the various states that the Federal Government would not step outside the boundaries established in the Constitution. The amendment 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.

The Supreme Court has declared that the 10th Amendment is a truism. This means that the amendment doesn't really add anything new to the Constitution. It was just put in place to emphasize that the Federal Government has jurisdiction over some things and state governments have jurisdiction over other things.

In the United States, some powers belong to state governments and other powers belong to the Federal Government. We call this a federal system. But which powers go to which government? The 10th Amendment essentially explains this federal system. It says that anything that was not given to the Federal Government and not banned by the Constitution is a power of the states.

Constitutional Cases

Does this amendment mean that the Federal Government cannot tell state governments how to run? Not really. The Supreme Court hardly ever turns over a federal law because it violated the 10th Amendment. This is because the Constitution gives Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, commonly called the commerce clause.

An example of this is the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich. In this case, a California woman sued the Federal Government because it seized her personal medical marijuana crops. In California, medical marijuana is legal, but the United States Federal Government claims it is illegal. Although the woman grew the crops only for herself, the marijuana could potentially have entered into the larger marijuana market. So, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Government's laws trumped California's state law because of the government's right to regulate interstate commerce. What this shows, above all, is how the Federal Government laws can influence state laws, despite the 10th Amendment.

Another way the Federal Government often gets state governments to comply with its laws is by attaching strings to the acceptance of federal aid. For example, the legal drinking age in all 50 states is 21, but this isn't a federal law. So why is the drinking age the same in every state? This is where the Federal Government gets sneaky because they tie the drinking age of each individual state to broader federal highway funding. If a state refused to accept this drinking age, it would lose federal funding for its highways. Thus, all states have accepted this drinking age so as not to lose highway funding.

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