The 10th Amendment – Definition & Famous Cases

The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791.

The original text reads:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

What is the 10th Amendment About?

The 10th Amendment clarifies the division of power between the federal government and the states. It reiterates the idea that the federal government has only the powers issued to it by the U.S. Constitution and the remaining power belongs to the states and the people. It was included in large part to satisfy the Anti-Federalists who were worried about a powerful federal government.

Derived from the original Articles of Confederation, the 10th Amendment expressly prohibits “implied power” assumed by the federal government and hammers home the idea that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

Where is the 10th Amendment Used?

Since its inception, the 10th Amendment has been cited in court for various cases where the state and other local governments have used it to try and gain exemption from federal laws. Violation of the 10th Amendment occurs most often in labor issues and environmental controls.

Whenever state government feels that Congress is overtly pressuring them to comply with federal laws, the 10th Amendment is invoked and cited as an argument. In many cases it is found to be a violation of power and equality is once again restored.

Famous 10th Amendment Cases

In the famous case United States v. Sprague (1931) the Supreme Court reminded the federal government that their powers were limited strictly to only what was contained in the U.S. Constitution. Anything further violated the 10th Amendment. The case dealt with prohibition.

During the landmark case United States v. Darby Lumber Co., (1941), the 10th Amendment took center stage when the Supreme Court upheld the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 ruling that the federal government did indeed have the power to regulate minimum wage and other labor conditions. The famous quote from that case reads “The amendment states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered. There is nothing in the history of its adoption to suggest that it was more than declaratory of the relationship between the national and state governments as it had been established by the Constitution before the amendment or that its purpose was other than to allay fears that the new national government might seek to exercise powers not granted, and that the states might not be able to exercise fully their reserved powers.”

Then in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985), the Supreme Court actually overturned the previous case of National League of Cities v. Usery where the federal government dictated that states had to honor minimum wage and other fair labor standards to employees. In the previous case, they ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act violated the 10th Amendment.

In New York v. United States (1992), the Supreme Court invalided a small portion of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 where states had to take ownership and pay damages for any waste that was not disposed of by January 1, 1996. The court determined that this portion was the federal government asserting too much power over the states and demanded that it be corrected.

Surprisingly, in the case of Printz v. United States (1997), the Supreme Court took issue with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that demanded that state agencies performed background checks on buyers before issuing handguns. It was called unconstitutional because it “forced participation of the State’s executive in the actual administration of a federal program.”

Modern Society and the 10th Amendment

The Supreme Court has done a great job of enforcing the 10th Amendment in cases where the federal government tried to force state and local entities to follow federal laws.

The 10th Amendment is widely used in our court system on a regular basis as new issues arise when state governments feel that they are unfairly pressured to comply with federal statutes. The problem comes up far more than most Americans realize because it does not directly affect U.S. citizens. Throughout the years since it was designed, the 10th Amendment is cited when cases land on the docket regarding “Commerce Clause, Supremacy Clause, and Federal funding issues. The government must walk a fine line between funding programs within state government and overstepping boundaries of control and power. The Supreme Court rules on all of these issues to keep the federal government under control and the states powered with the intended autonomy.