Supreme Court curb on federal powers Narrow majority: Changing lineup of justices shifts vote toward state's rights.

March 31, 1996

THE DIVISION of powers between the federal government and the states has never been a precisely fixed line. But for much of this century, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions that tended to shore up federal powers at the expense of state's rights.

Its latest ruling overturns a 1988 federal law permitting Indian tribes to sue states in federal court if negotiations over casinos on tribal land break down -- thus curbing the power of Congress to subject states to lawsuits in federal courts. The decision sends a sharp signal that the court is serious about rethinking the federal-state relationship.

As in any such controversy, the full implications of this decision will take time to determine. But the opinion does make clear that a similarly controversial decision last year was not a lone aberration in declaring that Congress had no authority to ban gun possession near schools. Clearly, the court is embarked on the kind of re-evaluation of the balance of power between states and the federal government that will have sweeping ramifications, many of them worrisome.

If, as state's rights advocates argue, federal power can be too extreme, it is also true that handing too much authority to the states has its own dangers. That is especially true when states are already involved in cut-throat competition on several fronts. Witness the vigorous efforts of states to lure businesses and jobs with tax breaks, regulatory reform and looser environmental restrictions so as to ease the burden on current or potential employers.

Even if the new ruling does not bear directly on those issues, it is worth remembering that although a certain amount of competition between states is inevitable and even healthy, there is a point at which the power to overrule individual states becomes critical to the security and well-being of the nation. Fortunately, the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, is careful to note that the ruling does not abrogate the federal government's authority to enforce the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the law.

The 5-4 split in this decision as well as the vigor of the dissents in this case -- notably the 92-page dissent of Justice David H. Souter -- suggest that the issue of state's rights hits a raw nerve with the justices. Although state's rights advocates seem now to have the upper hand, this is one issue on which we can be sure the court has not spoken its last word.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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