Constitutional Law I, Pages 206–210

Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority

Supreme Court of the United States, 1985

(Old) Rule:

National League of Cities: Congress cannot regulate states "in areas of traditional governmental functions."


This court established a substantive immunity rule based upon whether a power was a "traditional" government function, but it never defined how a "traditional" function is distinguished from a "nontraditional" one. This required the courts to identify what elements of states' sovereignty are essential "separate and independent existence." The courts will not be able to do this. Attempting to draw such lines makes this test unworkable and inconsistent with federalist principles. Instead, Congress will be adequately limited in its regulations by the simple federalist procedural safeguards inherently imposed by the states' role in selecting the legislature and president.


Congress can regulate any state government function.

Dissenting Opinions:

  • Powell: The majority does not explain how the states' role in the electoral process guarantees that Congress will not infringe on this sovereignty. While members of Congress are elected from the states, they afterwards become members of the federal government. The electoral college does not make the president a guard of states' interests. Instead the federal government will continue to extend its power as it is under pressure to do, regardless of the states' electoral role.

    Even more troubling, the majority says that it is up to Congress to say what its own limits are, while it has long been the rule that this is the province of the federal judiciary. The Constitution intended general authority to be left to the states, while the majority is only paying them lip service. It is virtually impossible for federal legislators to be truly familiar with many of their statutes and the employees who enforce them will not be aware of the states and localities they affect. They will not be as responsive to the needs of the people as local governments are. It should be up to the state and local governments to govern themselves.

  • O'Connor: Federalism is not just that the states have some role in electing federal officials. The true essence of federalism is that the states as states have legitimate interests which the national government is bound to respect. This Court cannot just abdicate its responsibility to oversee the federal government's compliance with this.

    The majority disclaims all efforts to protect the states, saying that federal encroachments on state authority will remain "horrible possibilities that never happen in the real world." However, the federal government has so far consistently encroached on state activities. Now, all that protects the remaining essentials of state sovereignty is Congress's underdeveloped capacity for self-restraint.

  • Rehnquist: The dissent does not have to further explain its position since it will eventually become the majority position again.