Some of the most important decisions issued by the Supreme Court over the past decade have been about federalism, i.e., the sharing of governing authority between the federal government and the fifty state governments. Since 1995, the Supreme Court has struck down or limited the reach of numerous federal laws passed by Congress in such policy areas as civil rights, crime, and economic regulation. These rulings have not attracted as much public or political attention as court rulings related to abortion, gay marriage, and criminal justice, but they are arguably much broader in their impact and potential to precipitate fundamental constitutional change.
Many of the recent federalism rulings have been based on the Supreme Court’s newly restrictive reading of some of Congress’s constitutional power. One of the most important and enduring constitutional principles is that Congress is only allowed to exercise powers enumerated in the Constitution. The Court’s recent federalism rulings have focused on Congress’s use of its enumerated powers to regulate commerce “among the states” (Article I, Sec. 8) and to protect civil rights (Amendment 14, Sec. 5). After deciding narrowly that Congress had exceeded one or both of these general powers, the Court’s conservative majority has struck down or limited the reach of key provisions in the Gun Free School Zones Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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