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The Powers of the National Government

It must have been the intention of those who gave these powers, to insure, as far as human prudence could insure, their beneficial execution. This could not be done by confiding the choice of means to such narrow limits as not to leave it in the power of Congress to adopt any which might be appropriate, and which were conducive to the end. This provision is made in a constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. … To have declared that the best means shall not be used, but those alone without which the power given would be nugatory, would have been to deprive the legislature of the capacity to avail itself of experience, to exercise its reason, and to accommodate its legislation to circumstances.

Id. at 415-416.

Finally, Marshall summed up the combination of his general reasoning and his interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause as follows:

We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended. But we think the sound construction of the constitution must allow to the national legislature that discretion, with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution, which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it, in the manner most beneficial to the people. Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.

Id. at 421.

Marshall’s interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause remains the authoritative interpretation of that clause. Thus, “in determining whether the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress the legislative authority to enact a particular federal statute, we look to see whether the statute constitutes a means that is rationally related to the implementation of a constitutionally enumerated power.” United States v. Comstock, 130 S. Ct. 1949, 1956 (2010). As a consequence, Congress today is vested with broad discretion in choosing the means through which it will exercise its granted powers. Yet that discretion is not unlimited. Nor are the terms “necessary” and “proper” always synonymous. The Court has thus held that even though a particular law may satisfy the requirement of being “necessary” in the rationally related sense, it may still not be “proper” if it would tend to “undermine the structure of government established by the Constitution.” National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2592 (2012).

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