40 Landmark Cases in Federalism
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
- The War of 1812 had just come to a close and the economy was in shambles due to the
usual overspending occurring in times of war. Around this time, the national bank’s
charter was set to expire and due to the economic circumstances of the country, President
Madison renewed the charter in 1816 (Irons 122).
- As a result, the national bank, rather than stabilizing the economy, began tightening
credit, calling in loans and foreclosing on thousands of farm mortgages in 1819 (Ibid).
- The resulting panic of 1819 led many states to impose taxes on the operations of the
- The state of Maryland levied a tax of $15,000 on all banks not chartered by the state (an
indirect way of only charging the national bank).
- When James McCulloch, cashier of the national bank’s Baltimore branch refused to pay
the tax the state sued him to collect. Judges in Maryland, unsurprisingly, ruled against
- McCulloch then appealed his case to the Supreme Court.
- It was a crowded chamber as the chief advocate for the national bank, Daniel Webster—
the greatest corporate lawyer who ever lived—began opening arguments. The arguments
lasted nine days and Webster’s opponent was Luther Martin, a capable attorney in his
own right; however, afflicted with rampant alcoholism. It was “rumored” that Martin
argued the majority of the case inebriated (Irons 123).
- Webster’s argument was largely Hamiltonian, resting on expanded views of
- Martin’s argument was Jeffersonian, resting on restrictive views of congressional
- Constitutional questions:
1) Did Congress have the authority to establish the bank?
2) Did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers?
- The decision was 7-0.
- John Marshall argued that the power could be implied if one looks at the other specific
powers granted to Congress in Article 1, Section 8, in addition to the final clause enabled
Congress “to make all laws that are necessary and proper for carrying into execution the
foregoing powers. “ From this interpretation the court opened the door for future
increases of Congressional power.
- The other issue of the McCulloch case was whether or not the state of Maryland had the
constitutional authority to tax the national bank. Marshall and the court took the national
government’s side, arguing that a legislature representing all of the people could not be
taxed by a state legislature representing a small portion of the people. This decision also
carried the dictum: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
- If Maryland could not create a national entity, then it could not destroy one. If it was possible to tax something into oblivion, thereby destroying it, then Maryland did not have the power to tax something they did not create.
- And, finally, this case utilized and clarified the supremacy clause wherein: whenever a state law conflicts with a federal law, the state law should be deemed invalid because “the laws of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land” (Oyez).
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
- Constitutional question: Did the State of New York exercise authority in a realm
reserved exclusively to Congress, namely, the regulation of interstate commerce?
- The case involved the question of whether or not the state of New York could grant a
monopoly to Robert Fulton’s steamboat company to operate an exclusive service between
New York and New Jersey. Former partners Aaron Ogden, who had been granted his
license from Fulton’s company, and Thomas Gibbons, who had secured a competing
license from the U.S. government, were the chief actors in this case impacting the reaches
of federal power.
- 6-0 decision.
- The court argued that Gibbons, who incidentally was represented by Daniel Webster—a
gift from Cornelius Vanderbilt— could not be kept from competing because the state of
New York did not have the power to grant that particular monopoly (Irons 132).
Marshall clarified the phrase “commerce…among the several States.” Marshall believed
the definition was “comprehensive” but added that the comprehensiveness was limited to
matters involving commerce that concerns more than one state” (Oyez).
- Interstate commerce became a source of power by the Federal government over the
U.S. v. Lopez (1995)
- Constitutional question: Is the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, forbidding individuals
from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, unconstitutional because it exceeds the
power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?
- Congress claimed authority for the law by arguing gun violence in schools can lead to
both more dangerous and less commercially healthy neighborhoods (Mcbride).
- 5-4 decision
- The Court struck down a federal law that barred handguns near schools. The decision
restricted Congress’s ability to reach into the state’s activities via the commerce clause.
Printz v. U.S. (1997)
- Central question: Using the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I as justification, can
Congress temporarily require state CLEOs to regulate handgun purchases by performing
those duties called for by the Brady Bill's handgun applicant background-checks?
- 5-4 decision.
- The Court struck down the law.
- The Court constructed its opinion on the old principle that state legislatures are not
subject to federal direction. The Court explained that while Congress may require the
federal government to regulate commerce directly, in this case by performing
background-checks on applicants for handgun ownership, the Necessary and Proper
Clause does not empower it to compel state CLEOs to fulfill its federal tasks for it – even
GIBBONS v. OGDEN. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 28 December
Harrison, Brigid, and Jean W. Harris. A More Perfect Union: Inquiry and Analysis. New York:
McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.
Irons, Peter. A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and
Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution: Revised Edition. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
MCCULLOCH v. MARYLAND. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 28
December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1819/1819_0>.
McBride, Alex. "Landmark Cases: Gibbons v. Ogden." Supreme Court History: The First 100
Years. PBS, 2007. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.
— "Landmark Cases: McCulloch v. Maryland." Supreme Court History: The First 100 Years.
PBS, 2007. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.
— "Landmark Cases: U.S. v. Lopez." Supreme Court History: The First 100 Years. PBS, 2007.
Web. 20 Aug. 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/future/landmark_us.html
PRINTZ v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 28
December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1996/1996_95_1478>.