26 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
    national bank.
  • 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
    congressional powers.
  • Martin’s argument was Jeffersonian, resting on restrictive views of congressional
    expressed powers.
  • 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
    temporarily (McBride).


GIBBONS v. OGDEN. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 28 December
2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1824/1824_0>.

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>.



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