National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833; 96 S. Ct. 2465; 49 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1976)

National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833; 96 S. Ct. 2465; 49 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1976)

Facts—The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 1974 to extend its minimum wage and maximum hour provisions to most state and local employees. Cities and states brought suit against the secretary of labor for declaratory and injunctive relief, but were turned down by a three-judge U.S. District Court, partly on the basis that the Supreme Court had approved such federal regulations in Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968).

Question—Does the application of federal minimum wage and maximum hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to the state and local governments violate their rights under the Tenth Amendment to make key decisions affecting their citizens?


ReasonsJ. Rehnquist (5–4). The time has come to limit Maryland v. Wirtz. Although the commerce clause gives plenary authority to Congress, this authority is limited by specific constitutional restraints. The states have a vital role to play in the federal system, and the Tenth Amendment indicates that states should accordingly be treated differently than mere private citizens. Citing Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559 (1911), Rehnquist argued that: “We have repeatedly recognized that there are attributes of sovereignty attaching to every state government which may not be impaired by Congress, not because Congress may lack an affirmative grant of legislative authority to reach the matter, but because the Constitution prohibits it from exercising the authority in that manner.” Federal wage and hour provisions can result not only in significant financial costs to the states but can also substantially interfere with the manner in which states choose to do their business. They will “significantly alter or displace the States’ abilities to structure employer-employee relationships in such areas as fire prevention, police protection, sanitation, public health, and parks and recreation,” all functions traditionally exercised by the states: “insofar as the challenged amendments operate to directly displace the States’ freedom to structure integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions, they are not within the authority granted Congress.”

J. Blackmun’s concurring opinion, interpreted the decision not as a flat prohibition on federal regulations affecting states but as the exercise of “a balancing approach.” J. Brennan, joined by J. White and J. Marshall, dissented. The dissenters viewed the Court’s decision as a “patent usurpation of the role reserved for the political process.” They further said that the majority’s reliance on the Tenth Amendment “must astound scholars of the Constitution” and remind them of the days that the Court used this and other constitutional provisions to invalidate federal programs. States are protected in the federal system through their representation within Congress. Moreover, they received lots of grants that more than compensate them for the costs of adhering to federal regulations. In his dissent, J. Stevens indicated that he thought that it was unwise for the federal government to act in the manner in which it did but not unconstitutional for it to do so.

Note—The Supreme Court overturned this decision in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985), deciding that it could not adequately distinguish the exercise of traditional from nontraditional state functions.

Leave a Reply