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Federal Controls on State Governments: Mandates and Federal Court Rulings

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  • 0:02 Federalism
  • 2:28 Federal Courts
  • 4:15 Federal Mandates
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

Though we have federalism, the federal government still controls certain aspects of state government. This lesson takes a look at the ways the federal government controls state government, such as federal court decisions and mandates.

Federalism

I'm in my 40s, and my mother still calls me to ask if I'm eating my vegetables. Though I've been completely independent from my parents for more than two decades, my mother still finds sneaky ways to regulate certain areas of my life!

This is not unlike federalism. Federalism is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments. The Framers designed our system of federalism specifically so that the federal government and the state governments could operate separately from one another. However, the federal government still finds ways to control the state governments.

Let's take a quick look at how federalism came to be. The Articles of Confederation originally established the United States as a confederation and established that each of the states operated separately and independently from one another. The Framers thought the states held too much power and wished to form a more centralized government. However, they didn't want the federal government to have too much power over the people.

The Framers, therefore, developed the United States Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution recognizes the federal government as the highest governmental power. Although, it also acknowledges two other important founding standards:

  • The American people are subject to several different powers.
  • Most government issues are regulated by the states.

The Constitution tells us these values. Through the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, we know that the federal laws are the highest in the land. However, through the Constitution's Tenth Amendment, we know that most governmental powers are left to the states. You might think the Constitution therefore establishes a clear division of powers through these two sections. However, there are often disputes over power. The U.S. Supreme Court decides all issues regarding the division of powers.

Federal Courts

Now let's take a look at one of the ways the federal government controls the state governments. The Framers established the role of the federal courts. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. This means they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes.

The federal courts, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, decide cases involving federalism. These courts settle disputes regarding which government system, federal or state, controls an issue. Sometimes a state law seeks to regulate an area constitutionally reserved to the federal government. In this case, the Supreme Court will declare the state law to be unconstitutional and unenforceable. By doing so, the Court noticeably controls state government.

Let's look at an example. The Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools, though several states used segregation at that time. In the famous Brown v. Board of Education 1954 case, the Court declared racially segregated public education to be unconstitutional. Writing on behalf of the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren said, 'We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.' This ended the states' ability to make their own laws on the matter. Notice how the federal government interfered with the states' actions but did so to promote equality between the citizens.

Federal Mandates

A similar example is the federal government's use of mandates. A mandate is a federal regulation that states must follow. Mandates are another common way that the federal government controls state government.

Note that states must follow federal mandates even in situations where the states constitutionally make their own laws. Take, for example, environmental laws. Federal mandates set requirements for air and water pollution control, even though that issue is largely left to the states to regulate. The states are responsible for making their own laws, but those laws must adhere to the federal mandates. As a result, we don't have one state highly regulating pollution and another not regulating it at all.

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