Federalism and Individual Rights

In a decision released Friday, Bond v. United States, the US Supreme Court ruled that individuals charged in criminal cases have standing to challenge the constitutionality of federal laws on 10th Amendment grounds.  The Court held that federalism, as described in the 10th Amendment, protects individual rights, not merely the states’ sovereignty.

Federalism secures the freedom of the individual. It allows States to respond, through theenactment of positive law, to the initiative of those who seek a voice in shaping the destiny of their own times without having to rely solely upon the political processes that control a remote central power. True, of course, these objects cannot be vindicated by the Judiciary in the absence of a proper case or controversy; but the individual liberty secured by federalism is not simply derivative of the rights of the States.

Federalism also protects the liberty of all persons within a State by ensuring that laws enacted in excess of delegated governmental power cannot direct or control their actions. See ibid. By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power. When government acts in excess of its lawful powers, that liberty is at stake.

The limitations that federalism entails are not therefore a matter of rights belonging only to the States. States are not the sole intended beneficiaries of federalism. See New York, supra, at 181. An individual has a direct interest in objecting to laws that upset the constitutional balance between the National Government and the States when the enforcement of those laws causes injury that is concrete, particular, and redressable. Fidelity to principles of federalism is not for the States alone to vindicate.

Just as it is appropriate for an individual, in a proper case, to invoke separation-of-powers or checks-and-balances constraints, so too may a litigant, in a proper case, challenge a law as enacted in contravention of constitutional principles of federalism. That claim need not depend on the vicarious assertion of a State’s constitutional interests, even if a State’s constitutional interests are also implicated.

The government had also argued that the defendant could not invoke the state sovereignty argument, since she wasn’t a state.  The Court ruled against the government on those grounds, as well.  Meaning that an individual, with a legitimate case, can argue that a federal law is unconstitutional based on either state sovereignty grounds, or on enumerated powers grounds.

The Court was careful not to change the conditions under which someone had the standing to assert unconstitutionality.  They have to be a party to a suit, or have suffered some specific harm.  That remains unchanged:

An individual who challenges federal action on these grounds is, of course, subject to the Article III requirements, as well as prudential rules, applicable to all litigants and claims. Individuals have “no standing to complain simply that their Government is violating the law.” Allen v. Wright, 468 U. S. 737, 755 (1984). It is not enough that a litigant “suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.” Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U. S. 447, 488 (1923) (decided with Massachusetts v. Mellon). If, in connection with the claim being asserted, a litigant who commences suit fails to show actual or imminent harm that is concrete and particular, fairly traceableto the conduct complained of, and likely to be redressed bya favorable decision, the Federal Judiciary cannot hear the claim. Lujan, 504 U. S., at 560–561. These requirements must be satisfied before an individual may assert a constitutional claim; and in some instances, the result may bethat a State is the only entity capable of demonstrating the requisite injury.

The Goldwater Institute has a number of cases and briefs pending (they single out arguments against the NLRB and Obamacare) that depend on 10th Amendment objections.  While standing remains, as ever, an issue in litigation, at least the Court has given a clear directive that 10th Amendment right devolve to individuals on state sovereignty grounds, and not merely states.


  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  1. No trackbacks yet.