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U.S. History – Federalism Court Cases



Federalism is defined as the process by which the power of the government is divided between the central government and the governments of states or territories. The Founding Fathers established a system of federalism in the United States by creating the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Overall the goal was to ensure that the power of the central government was to be kept in check by allowing state governments to enact laws to protect individual citizens. In an effort to demonstrate the use of federalism in action, two hypothetical cases and their potential resolution are presented in this investigation.

Easy Case

The first case is entitled Fred v. Fleshman. In this case a 35 year old Chinese immigrant (Fred) has been employed at Fleshman’s Grocery Store for the past year. Fred has been earning $4 hour despite the fact that the federal minimum wage is currently $6.75 an hour. Upon approaching his boss about the minimum wage issue, Fleshman tells Fred that he is not entitled to receive the minimum wage because he is an immigrant to the United States.

Unsure of his rights as an immigrant to the United States, Fred subsequently contacted an attorney to determine his ability to receive fair compensation under the minimum wage laws of the United States. Fred subsequently made the decision to sue his employer for wage discrimination. When the case was first heard in the Florida state court, the court ruled in favor of Fleshman stating that the business owner had a right to establish a minimum wage that he saw fit for his employees. The case was subsequently remanded to the federal court where the ruling favored the plaintiff because the state of Florida had violated a federal to maintain a minimum wage of $6.75 per hour. Under the provisions of the 10th amendment, the Federal Court argued that the state of Florida must uphold this federal law.

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The Ruling

The basic context of the 10th amendment states that the state have the right to retain power over specific areas of governance. This is the basic context of federalism. The process of federalism was enacted as a means to prevent the federal government from garnering too much power over the individual states. Although federalism enables individual states to make specific laws with respect to individual citizens, the Commerce Clause provide a loophole for the federal government to establish laws governing human behaviors that are not fully explicated in the Constitution. As such, the federal government does have some power to effectively mitigate the extent of the laws that can be crafted by individual states.

With this in mind, it is helpful to consider the specific precedent that has been set with respect to the government’s ability to enforce a federal minimum wage law. In the case of Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Authority (1958) the Supreme Court ruled that, “the Commerce Clause does not empower Congress to enforce the minimum-wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) against the States in areas of traditional governmental functions. Although this case specifically deals with the setting of minimum wage standards for “traditional government functions” it has been used as a precedent for establishing the states rights to develop and implement minimum-wage laws. As such, the federal court’s decision should be reversed as the federal government does not appear to have any right to enforce a federal minimum wage standard upon individual states.

The Hard Case

The second case is entitled Chavez and Miller v. the State of California. In this case a gay couple from Hawaii were married in this state under new laws that support civil unions between same sex couples. Although the couple planned to live in Hawaii for the remainder of their lives, job changes and family obligations for the couple to move to California. In an effort to ensure that their rights would be protected under the binding contact of a civil union. Chavez and Miller filed for a marriage license from the local court house. Their license application was rejected.

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After having their marriage license rejected by the local court, the couple chose to file a marriage license with the state of California. The State of California accepted the couple’s application for a marriage license, granting the couple the same protections as heterosexual couples applying for marriage licenses. The federal government, upon hearing of the decision of the State of California to sanction same-sex marriage filed to have the application rejected, arguing that the state could not effectively legalize same-sex union. Further, the federal government argued that state courthouse had no right to approve a same-sex marriage as the legalization of same-sex marriage is against the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. The State of California chose to reject the marriage application. The couple subsequently chose to sue the state of California because it was unwilling to recognize the same civil union that had been recognized in the State of Hawaii.

The Ruling

Sorting out all of the facts of the case, it becomes evident that the federal government cannot prohibit states from making specific laws with respect to marriage. All across the United States, there is they do have different laws in place with respect to the requirements necessary for marriage. Under the terms of the 10th amendment and the context of federalism, states have been granted the power to establish the marriage laws that they see fit for their citizens. As such, the determination made by the federal government to intervene in this case is clearly a violation of the 10th amendment to the Constitution.

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Although Chavez and Miller may have a case against the federal government with respect to its decision to intervene, the reality is that if the California State Legislature does not have the a marriage provision that allows for same-sex unions, the couple could not be legally married in the state of California. Further, because the state of California does not have specific laws with respect to civil unions between same-sex couples the state is not obligated to recognize a civil union performed in another state. Here again, the provisions of the 10th amendment to the Constitution provide a basis for the California state courts to reject the marriage license of a same-sex couple (Hoffman, 2006).


Clearly, federalism has marked implications for the development of the laws that are established in both the federal and state. While the federal government does indeed have the right to impose rules on the states, it is evident that the laws of the states have considerable outcomes on the rulings that are established in many cases. As such, the issue of federalism is one that cannot be ignored in the context of either state or federal law making.


Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Authority 469 U.S. 528 (1985).

Hoffman, I. (2006). Same sex marriage: An act of law. Ivan Hoffman. Accessed April 4, 2006 at: http://www.ivanhoffman.com/marriage.html.