In Usery, the Court declared unconstitutional the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required the payments of minimum wage to state and local employees. The court began with the premise that “there are limits upon the power of Congress to override state sovereignty, even when exercising its otherwise plenary powers to tax or to regulate commerce.” The court found that requiring states to pay their employees the minimum wage violated the Tenth Amendment b/c the law “operates to directly displace the States freedom to structure integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions.”
The court explained that forcing state and local governments to pay their employees the minimum wage would require that they either raise taxes or cut other services to pay these costs. The court said that this would displace decisions traditionally left to the states and “may substantially restructure traditional ways in which the local governments have arranged their affairs”.
In other words, Usery held that Congress violates the Tenth Amendment when it interferes with traditional state and local government functions. The court, however, did not attempt to define what a traditional function would be; it only held that forcing payment of the minimum wage was unconstitutional.
In Garcia, the SC expressly overruled National League of Cities/Usery. Garcia, like National League of Cities/Usery, focused on whether the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act to state and local governments violated the Tenth Amendment.
Justice Blackmun, offered two reasons for overruling Usery. First, the Usery approach had proved unworkable. He wrote “We, therefore reject as unsound principle and unworkable in practice, a rule of state immunity from federal regulation that turns on a judicial appraisal of whether a particular government function is ’traditional’ or ‘integral’.” Justice Blackmun, arguing for the more liberal wing of the Court, argued for judicial restraint in enforcing the Tenth Amendment in terms usually associated with the more conservative Justices: “Any rule of state immunity that looks to the ‘traditional’, ‘integral’, or ‘necessary’ nature of governmental functions inevitably invites an un-elected federal judiciary to make decisions about which state policies it favors and which one it dislikes”.
Second, Justice Blackmun argued that the protection of state prerogatives should be through the political process and not from the judiciary. The Court stated: “Of course, we continue to recognize that the States occupy a special and specific position in our constitutional system and that the scope of Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause must reflect that position. But the principal and basic limit on the federal commerce power is that inherent in all congressional ‘action – the built-in’ restraints that our system provides through state participation in federal governmental action. The political process ensures that the laws that unduly burden the states will not be promulgated.”
There were three dissenting opinions. Justice Powell’s dissent focused on the majority’s first major point as to whether it was possible to define “traditional” or “integral” government functions. Powell argued that the Court could define the parameters of the Tenth Amendment just as the Court has defined numerous other ambiguous constitutional provisions. Justice O’Connor’s dissent responded to the majority’s second major point and challenged the view that the political process would adequately protect the interests of state governments. Finally, Justice Rehnquist wrote a short dissent lamenting the majority’s approach but predicting that, in time, the conservative’s position on the Tenth Amendment would again prevail.
In the 1990s, the court revived the Tenth Amendment as a limit on Congress’s power. However, Garcia has not been overruled and Usery has not been reinstated. Therefore, the Fair Labor Standards Act…