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On February 19, 1985, the Supreme Court, in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, overruled its 1976 decision in National League of Cities v. Usery. Although the continued vitality of National League of Cities had been in question in recent years, the Court's abrupt repudiation of the very principle announced in that case is an event of considerable significance, beyond showing, one more time, that the rule of stare decisis has a limited application in the Court's modern constitutional adjudication. Garcia's importance lies, above all, in revealing the absence of anything approaching a well elaborated theory of federalism that would provide a solid intellectual framework for an articulation of the Justices' divergent views on state-national relations. Three dissenting members of the Garcia Court state in no uncertain terms that they are prepared to reverse the course again in the near future. It is very important, therefore, for the scholarly community and the profession to conduct a thorough inquiry into the theoretical foundations of federalism before the Court embarks on further adventures.

The position of federalism in our constitutional law is peculiar. On the one hand, next to separation of powers and individual rights, federalism is clearly one of the three main branches of our constitutional structure. On the other hand, judicial enforcement of any limits on national power that the concept of federalism might entail has a rather unfortunate history and, at least insofar as the limitations on national commerce power are concerned, seems to have been abandoned in the Garcia case in favor of what Professor Wechsler has called "the political safeguards of federalism."


Constitutional Law | Jurisprudence | Law

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© 1985 by The University of Chicago.