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National League of Cities v. Usery

Citation. 426 U.S. 833 (1976)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Appellants contend that the 1974 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, while undoubtedly within the scope of the Commerce Clause, encounter a constitutional barrier because they are to be applied directly to the States and subdivisions of States as employers.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There are limits upon the power of Congress to override state sovereignty, even when exercising its otherwise plenary powers to tax or to regulate commerce which are conferred by the Constitution.


Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act which was upheld as a valid exercise of congressional authority under the commerce power in United States v. Darby. The original Act passed in 1938 specifically excluded the States and their political subdivisions from its coverage. After amendments, the Act extended the provisions to some types of public employees and in 1966, with the amendment of the definition of employers, the exemption extended to the States and their political subdivisions was removed with respect to employees of state hospitals, institutions, and schools. The Court sustained the validity of these amendments in Maryland v. Wirtz.


Are determinations, of whether how much wages to be paid to employers and what hours those persons will work, functions essential to separate and independent exercise, so that Congress may not abrogate the States’ otherwise plenary authority to make them?


No, the effect of the 1974 amendments as sought to be extended to the States and their political subdivisions satisfied the Court that both the minimum wage and the maximum hour provisions will impermissibly interfere with the integral governmental functions of these bodies. The amendments will significantly alter or displace the States’ abilities to structure employer-employee relationships in such areas as fire prevention, police protection, and recreation. Therefore, the 1974 amendments are invalid.


Justice Brennan and Stevens

Brennan: The majority have manufactured an abstraction without substance with profoundly pernicious consequences. Judicial restraint in the area merely recognizes that the political branches of our government are structured to protect the interests of the States, as well as the Nation as a whole, and that the States are fully able to protect their own interests in their premises. Congress is constituted of representatives in both the Senate and House elected from the States.

Stevens: Congress may require the State to act impartially when it hires or fires the janitor, to withhold taxes from his paycheck, to observe safety regulations when he is performing his job, to forbid him from burning too much soft coal in the capitol furnace. Even though these and many other activities of the capitol janitor are activities of the State quo State, they are subject to the federal regulation.


The types of activities Congress is trying to regulate are typical of those performed by state and local governments in discharging their dual functions of administering the public law and furnishing public services. It is functions such as these which governments are created to provide, services such as these which the States have traditionally afforded their citizens. If Congress may withdraw from the States the authority to make those fundamental employment decisions upon their systems for performance of these functions must rest, there would be little left of the States’ separate and independent existence. The provisions operate to directly displace the States’ freedom to structure integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions, and they are not within the authority granted to Congress by the Commerce Clause.

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