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Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority 469 U.S. 528 (1985)


In national league of cities v. usery (1976) a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court sought to establish a new doctrinal foundation for the concept of states ' rights. Overruling its eight-year-old precedent in Maryland v. Wirtz (1968), the Court held unconstitutional the application of the wage and hour provisions of the federal fair labor standards act to state and local government employees in areas of "traditional governmental functions" such as police and fire protection. After eight more years, Garcia followed Wirtz and overruled Usery—again by 5–4 vote. Justice harry a. blackmun, whose change of vote produced this second about-face, wrote the opinion of the court.

Lower court decisions following Usery, said Justice Blackmun, had failed to establish any principle for determining which governmental functions were "traditional" and essential to state sovereignty, and thus immune from impairment by congressional regulations. Justice Blackmun did not mention his own contribution to the confusion, first in his Usery concurrence, which suggested that the reach of Congress's power depended on the importance of the national interests at stake, and later in his votes to uphold congressional power in cases only doubtfully distinguishable from Usery, such as Federal Regulatory Commission v. Mississippi (1982) and equal employment opportunity commission v. wyoming (1983). The reasoning in those opinions—heatedly disputed by the four Garcia dissenters—had sapped Usery 's strength as a precedent by making the states pass through a doctrinal labyrinth before Usery could be applied.

The aspect of the Garcia opinion that drew the most fire, from within the Court and from the outside, was its announcement of the Court's virtual abdication from judicial review of acts of Congress challenged as invasions of state sovereignty. The principal remedy for such potential abuses of congressional power, said Justice Blackmun, is not judicial but political. The constitutional structure assures the states a significant role in the selection of the national government; the influence of the states was demonstrated in the federal government's financial aid to the states and in the numerous exemptions for state activities provided in congressional regulations. The Court's abdication was not complete; Justice Blackmun acknowledged that some "affirmative limits … on federal action affecting the States" may remain. Yet he explicitly left to another day the specification of what those limits might be.

Justice lewis f. powell wrote the main opinion for the four dissenters. He began with a lament for the demise of stare decisis—which he had not mourned when Usery overruled Wirtz. The Usery principle had been "reiterated consistently over the past eight years," he said—not mentioning that those same opinions uniformly had sustained congressional regulations against challenges founded on Usery. Justice Powell argued that the majority had abandoned the federalism envisioned by the Framers, leaving the states' role to "the grace of elected federal officials." In any event, he contended, the "political safeguards of federalism" are not what they used to be. Congressional regulatory techniques have changed, increasingly displacing or commandeering the states' sovereign functions. Furthermore, although the people of the states are represented in the federal government, the state governments as institutions are apt to have little influence on national decision making, in comparison with nationwide interest groups.

Some of the dissenters left no doubt that they expect the Usery principle to return when members of the Garcia majority are replaced by new Justices more attuned to the symbolism of states' rights. But symbolism may be all that is left of that once vital principle, whatever the future may hold for the Garcia precedent. First, Congress can dragoon the state into its regulatory schemes as it did in hodel v. virginia surface mining and reclamation association (1981): regulating private conduct directly, but allowing a state to opt out of the federal regulation by adopting its own law under federal guidelines. Furthermore, if Congress wants to buy state sovereignty, it will find willing sellers. By placing conditions on federal grants-in-aid—which now amount to about one-fifth of state budgets—Congress can achieve through the spending power virtually anything it might achieve by direct regulation. Even if Garcia should be overruled and Usery reinstated, Congress can offer subsidies that are vital to local transit authorities or police departments, conditioned on promises to pay transit and police employees the federal minimum wage. The passion of the Justices on both sides may indicate that in these cases the symbolism is what counts.

Kenneth L. Karst


Field, Martha A. 1985 Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority: The Demise of a Misguided Doctrine. Harvard Law Review 99:84–118.

Van Alstyne, William W. 1985 The Second Death of Federalism. Michigan Law Review 83:1709–1733.

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