Division of Powers Between the National Government and the States

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  • 0:01 Federalism
  • 2:30 Early Supreme Court Decisions
  • 4:28 20th Century Supreme…
  • 6:18 21st Century Supreme…
  • 7:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The U.S. Constitution uses federalism to divide governmental powers between the federal government and the individual state governments. This lesson explores this division of powers by looking at Supreme Court decisions.


Imagine riding on a teeter-totter. Sometimes you're at the top and sometimes you're at the bottom - but often, you're someplace in between! Now imagine what your ride might feel like if someone else - a third party - controlled the balance of the teeter-totter. This is not unlike the ride our Supreme Court Justices control. Let's take a look at their role in controlling the balance of powers in our nation.

When the framers drafted the United States Constitution, they purposely didn't give the federal government much power over the states. In fact, they specifically prevented the federal government from regulating many different areas. That's because the framers wanted the states to continue governing most matters themselves.

So, the framers developed federalism. Federalism is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. Each government entity has responsibilities over the matters that are best addressed at that level of government.

Federalism is established through the Constitution's Supremacy Clause. This clause states that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Through the Tenth Amendment, we know that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. It would seem that these two sections operate together to form a clear division of powers, but that's not the case.

Controversies regarding who's in charge are common and have arisen throughout history. So, who decides which entity is responsible over a particular matter? Let's say the federal government decides to regulate marriage rights. Who decides whether or not this is a constitutional use of the federal government's powers?

The United States Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the U.S., and determines conflicts over states' rights versus federal powers. The Supreme Court, therefore, defines the division of powers. Keep in mind, though, that the Supreme Court changes over time. That means the Court's decisions also change. Let's take a look at some of the most important Supreme Court cases that have shaped our idea of federalism and how those ideas have changed throughout history.

Early Supreme Court Decisions

The Constitution was enacted in 1789. By the early 1800s, when Chief Justice John Marshall led the Supreme Court, the Court started hearing cases involving federalism. These Court opinions greatly shaped federal and state relations. The decisions defined the balance of power. During the Marshall era, the Court upheld the Constitution's message regarding national supremacy. The Court regularly struck down state laws in favor of federal power.

For example, in 1819, the Supreme Court decided one of the most famous cases on federalism still to date. This case is McCulloch v. Maryland, and it further expanded federal power. The Court struck down a Maryland law that required taxes on all banks not chartered in that state, but Congress had recently established a federal bank. As a result, Maryland's law was an attempt to tax the federal government, and that law was declared unconstitutional.

Just five years later, the Court decided Gibbons v. Ogden. This was the Court's first case involving the Commerce Clause. This clause gives Congress the exclusive power to regulate commerce, or business, between the states.

In the Gibbons case, a New York state law gave New Yorkers the exclusive right to operate steamboats in that state. New York charged a fee to navigate the waters between New York and New Jersey. The Court again sided with the federal government when declaring that law unconstitutional and ruling that the states had no right to regulate interstate commerce. As a result, the Court further extended the federal government's powers.

20th Century Supreme Court Decisions

Now let's take a look at the Court's major federalism decisions of the 20th century. The Court continued to address federalism cases here and there, but we're going to skip forward to the well-known 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia. In this famous case, the Court ruled all states' death penalty statutes to be unconstitutional. Here, you can see that the federal government once again displayed its supreme power over the states.

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