Federalism

Federal Preemption of State Laws

Missouri v. Holland (1920)

252 U.S. 416 (1920)

Decision: Affirmed
Vote: 7-2
Majority: Holmes, joined by White, McKenna, Day, McReynolds, Brandeis, and Clarke
Dissent: Van Devanter, Pitney [without opinion]

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a bill in equity brought by the State of Missouri to prevent a game warden of the United States from attempting to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act … The ground of the bill is that the statute is an unconstitutional interference with the rights reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment, and that the acts of the defendant done and threatened under that authority invade the sovereign right of the State and contravene its will manifested in statutes. The State also alleges a pecuniary interest, as owner of the wild birds within its borders and otherwise, admitted by the Government to be sufficient, but it is enough that the bill is a reasonable and proper means to assert the alleged quasi sovereign rights of a State …

The above mentioned Act of July 3, 1918, entitled an act to give effect to the convention, prohibited the killing, capturing or selling any of the migratory birds included in the terms of the treaty except as permitted by regulations compatible with those terms, to be made by the Secretary of Agriculture … [T]he question raised is the general one whether the treaty and statute are void as an interference with the rights reserved to the States …

Acts of Congress are the supreme law of the land only when made in pursuance of the Constitution, while treaties are declared to be so when made under the authority of the United States. It is open to question whether the authority of the United States means more than the formal acts prescribed to make the convention. We do not mean to imply that there are no qualifications to the treaty-making power, but they must be ascertained in a different way. It is obvious that there may be matters of the sharpest exigency for the national wellbeing that an act of Congress could not deal with, but that a treaty followed by such an act could, and it is not lightly to be assumed that, in matters requiring national action, “a power which must belong to and somewhere reside in every civilized government” is not to be found … The treaty in question does not contravene any prohibitory words to be found in the Constitution. The only question is whether it is forbidden by some invisible radiation from the general terms of the Tenth Amendment. We must consider what this country has become in deciding what that Amendment has reserved.

The State, as we have intimated, founds its claim of exclusive authority upon an assertion of title to migratory birds, an assertion that is embodied in statute. No doubt it is true that, as between a State and its inhabitants, the State may regulate the killing and sale of such birds, but it does not follow that its authority is exclusive of paramount powers. To put the claim of the State upon title is to lean upon a slender reed. Wild birds are not in the possession of anyone, and possession is the beginning of ownership. The whole foundation of the State’s rights is the presence within their jurisdiction of birds that yesterday had not arrived, tomorrow may be in another State, and, in a week, a thousand miles away. If we are to be accurate, we cannot put the case of the State upon higher ground than that the treaty deals with creatures that, for the moment are within the state borders, that it must be carried out by officers of the United States within the same territory, and that, but for the treaty, the State would be free to regulate this subject itself …

Valid treaties of course ‘are as binding within the territorial limits of the States as they are elsewhere throughout the dominion of the United States.’ Baldwin v. Franks [(1887)]. No doubt the great body of private relations usually fall within the control of the State, but a treaty may override its power. We do not have to invoke the later developments of constitutional law for this proposition; it was recognized as early as Hopkirk v. Bell, [(1807)], with regard to statutes of limitation, and even earlier, as to confiscation … It was assumed by Chief Justice Marshall with regard to the escheat of land to the State in Chirac v. Chirac, [(1817)] … Further illustration seems unnecessary, and it only remains to consider the application of established rules to the present case.

Here, a national interest of very nearly the first magnitude is involved. It can be protected only by national action in concert with that of another power. The subject matter is only transitorily within the State, and has no permanent habitat therein. But for the treaty and the statute, there soon might be no birds for any powers to deal with. We see nothing in the Constitution that compels the Government to sit by while a food supply is cut off and the protectors of our forests and our crops are destroyed. It is not sufficient to rely upon the States. The reliance is vain, and were it otherwise, the question is whether the United States is forbidden to act. We are of opinion that the treaty and statute must be upheld.

Decree affirmed.


Crosby v. NFTC (2000)

530 U.S. 363 (2000)

Decision: Affirmed
Vote: Unanimous
Majority: Souter, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer
Concurrence: Scalia, joined by Thomas

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue is whether the Burma law of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, restricting the authority of its agencies to purchase goods or services from companies doing business with Burma, is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the National Constitution owing to its threat of frustrating federal statutory objectives. We hold that it is …

The statute generally bars state entities from buying goods or services from any person (defined to include a business organization) identified on a “restricted purchase list” of those doing business with Burma …

In September 1996, three months after the Massachusetts law was enacted, Congress passed a statute imposing a set of mandatory and conditional sanctions on Burma …

Respondent National Foreign Trade Council (Council) is a nonprofit corporation representing companies engaged in foreign commerce; 34 of its members were on the Massachusetts restricted purchase list in 1998 … Three withdrew from Burma after the passage of the state Act, and one member had its bid for a procurement contract increased by 10 percent under the provision of the state law …

In April 1998, the Council filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the petitioner state officials charged with administering and enforcing the state Act (whom we will refer to simply as the State). The Council argued that the state law unconstitutionally infringed on the federal foreign affairs power, violated the Foreign Commerce Clause, and was preempted by the federal Act. After detailed stipulations, briefing, and argument, the District Court permanently enjoined enforcement of the state Act, holding that it “unconstitutionally impinge[d] on the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate foreign affairs … ”

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed on three independent grounds … It found the state Act unconstitutionally interfered with the foreign affairs power of the National Government under Zschernig v. Miller (1968) … violated the dormant Foreign Commerce Clause … and was preempted by the congressional Burma Act …

We granted certiorari to resolve these important questions … and now affirm.

A fundamental principle of the Constitution is that Congress has the power to preempt state law … Even without an express provision for preemption, we have found that state law must yield to a congressional Act in at least two circumstances. When Congress intends federal law to “occupy the field,” state law in that area is preempted. US v. Locke (2000) … And even if Congress has not occupied the field, state law is naturally preempted to the extent of any conflict with a federal statute … Hines v. Davidowitz (1941) …

[T]he categories of preemption are not “rigidly distinct.” English v. General Elec. Co., (1990). Because a variety of state laws and regulations may conflict with a federal statute, whether because a private party cannot comply with both sets of provisions or because the objectives of the federal statute are frustrated, “field pre-emption may be understood as a species of conflict pre-emption … ” and where “under the circumstances of [a] particular case, [the challenged state law] stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” Hines. What is a sufficient obstacle is a matter of judgment, to be informed by examining the federal statute as a whole and identifying its purpose and intended effects:

“For when the question is whether a Federal act overrides a state law, the entire scheme of the statute must of course be considered and that which needs must be implied is of no less force than that which is expressed. If the purpose of the act cannot otherwise be accomplished-if its operation within its chosen field else must be frustrated and its provisions be refused their natural effect-the state law must yield to the regulation of Congress within the sphere of its delegated power.”

Applying this standard, we see the state Burma law as an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress’s full objectives under the federal Act. We find that the state law undermines the intended purpose and “natural effect” of at least three provisions of the federal Act, that is, its delegation of effective discretion to the President to control economic sanctions against Burma, its limitation of sanctions solely to United States persons and new investment, and its directive to the President to proceed diplomatically in developing a comprehensive, multilateral strategy toward Burma …

First, Congress clearly intended the federal Act to provide the President with flexible and effective authority over economic sanctions against Burma. Although Congress immediately put in place a set of initial sanctions … It invested the President with the further power to ban new investment by United States persons, dependent only on specific Presidential findings of repression in Burma. And, most significantly, Congress empowered the President “to waive, temporarily or permanently, any sanction [under the federal Act] … if he determines and certifies to Congress that the application of such sanction would be contrary to the national security interests of the United States.”

Because our conclusion that the state Act conflicts with federal law is sufficient to affirm the judgment below, we decline to speak to field preemption as a separate issueor to pass on the First Circuit’s rulings addressing the foreign affairs power or the dormant Foreign Commerce Clause …

Within the sphere defined by Congress, then, the statute has placed the President in a position with as much discretion to exercise economic leverage against Burma, with an eye toward national security, as our law will admit. And it is just this plenitude of Executive authority that we think controls the issue of preemption here. The President has been given this authority not merely to make a political statement but to achieve a political result, and the fullness of his authority shows the importance in the congressional mind of reaching that result. It is simply implausible that Congress would have gone to such lengths to empower the President if it had been willing to compromise his effectiveness by deference to every provision of state statute or local ordinance that might, if enforced, blunt the consequences of discretionary Presidential action.

And that is just what the Massachusetts Burma law would do in imposing a different, state system of economic pressure against the Burmese political regime. As will be seen, the state statute penalizes some private action that the federal Act (as administered by the President) may allow, and pulls levers of influence that the federal Act does not reach. But the point here is that the state sanctions are immediate …  and perpetual, there being no termination provision … This unyielding application undermines the President’s intended statutory authority by making it impossible for him to restrain fully the coercive power of the national economy when he may choose to take the discretionary action open to him, whether he believes that the national interest requires sanctions to be lifted, or believes that the promise of lifting sanctions would move the Burmese regime in the democratic direction. Quite simply, if the Massachusetts law is enforceable the President has less to offer and less economic and diplomatic leverage as a consequence …

The conflicts are not rendered irrelevant by the State’s argument that there is no real conflict between the statutes because they share the same goals and because some companies may comply with both sets of restrictions … The fact of a common end hardly neutralizes conflicting means … and the fact that some companies may be able to comply with both sets of sanctions does not mean that the state Act is not at odds with achievement of the federal decision about the right degree of pressure to employ … Sanctions are drawn not only to bar what they prohibit but to allow what they permit, and the inconsistency of sanctions here undermines the congressional calibration of force …

[T]he Executive has consistently represented that the state Act has complicated its dealings with foreign sovereigns and proven an impediment to accomplishing objectives assigned it by Congress …

This evidence … is more than sufficient to show that the state Act stands as an obstacle in addressing the congressional obligation to devise a comprehensive, multilateral strategy …

[T]he existence of conflict cognizable under the Supremacy Clause does not depend on express congressional recognition that federal and state law may conflict, Hines. The State’s inference of congressional intent is unwarranted here, therefore, simply because the silence of Congress is ambiguous. Since we never ruled on whether state and local sanctions against South Africa in the 1980’s were preempted or otherwise invalid, arguable parallels between the two sets of federal and state Acts do not tell us much about the validity of the latter.

Because the state Act’s provisions conflict with Congress’s specific delegation to the President of flexible discretion, with limitation of sanctions to a limited scope of actions and actors, and with direction to develop a comprehensive, multilateral strategy under the federal Act, it is preempted, and its application is unconstitutional, under the Supremacy Clause.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is affirmed.

It is so ordered.


Arizona v. United States (2012)

567 U.S. 387 (2012)

Decision: Remanded, reversed in part and affirmed in part
Vote: 8-0
Majority: Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor
Concur/dissent: Scalia
Concur/dissent: Thomas
Concur/dissent: Alito
Not participating: Kagan

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

To address pressing issues related to the large number of aliens within its borders who do not have a lawful right to be in this country, the State of Arizona in 2010 enacted a statute called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The law is often referred to as S. B. 1070, the version introduced in the state senate. Its stated purpose is to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States … ” The law’s provisions establish an official state policy of “attrition through enforcement.”  The question before the Court is whether federal law preempts and renders invalid four separate provisions of the state law …

Two [of the provisions] create new state offenses. Section 3 makes failure to comply with federal alien-registration requirements a state misdemeanor. Section 5, in relevant part, makes it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to seek or engage in work in the State … Two other provisions give specific arrest authority and investigative duties with respect to certain aliens to state and local law enforcement officers. Section 6 authorizes officers to arrest without a warrant a person “the officer has probable cause to believe … has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.” Section 2(B) provides that officers who conduct a stop, detention, or arrest must in some circumstances make efforts to verify the person’s immigration status with the Federal Government …

This Court granted certiorari to resolve important questions concerning the interaction of state and federal power with respect to the law of immigration and alien status.

The Government of the United States has broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens … This authority rests, in part, on the National Government’s constitutional power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization … ”

It is fundamental that foreign countries concerned about the status, safety, and security of their nationals in the United States must be able to confer and communicate on this subject with one national sovereign, not the 50 separate States … This Court has reaffirmed that “[o]ne of the most important and delicate of all international relationships … has to do with the protection of the just rights of a country’s own nationals when those nationals are in another country.” Hines v. Davidowitz (1941) …

Congress has specified which aliens may be removed from the United States and the procedures for doing so. Aliens may be removed if they were inadmissible at the time of entry, have been convicted of certain crimes, or meet other criteria set by federal law. Removal is a civil, not criminal, matter. A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials …

Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime. The equities of an individual case may turn on many factors, including whether the alien has children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service. Some discretionary decisions involve policy choices that bear on this Nation’s international relations. Returning an alien to his own country may be deemed inappropriate even where he has committed a removable offense or fails to meet the criteria for admission. The foreign state may be mired in civil war, complicit in political persecution, or enduring conditions that create a real risk that the alien or his family will be harmed upon return. The dynamic nature of relations with other countries requires the Executive Branch to ensure that enforcement policies are consistent with this Nation’s foreign policy with respect to these and other realities …

Federalism, central to the constitutional design, adopts the principle that both the National and State Governments have elements of sovereignty the other is bound to respect … From the existence of two sovereigns follows the possibility that laws can be in conflict or at cross-purposes. The Supremacy Clause provides a clear rule that federal law “shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Under this principle, Congress has the power to preempt state law … There is no doubt that Congress may withdraw specified powers from the States by enacting a statute containing an express preemption provision …

State law must also give way to federal law in at least two other circumstances. First, the States are precluded from regulating conduct in a field that Congress, acting within its proper authority, has determined must be regulated by its exclusive governance. The intent to displace state law altogether can be inferred from a framework of regulation “so pervasive … that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it” or where there is a “federal interest … so dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject.” Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., (1947).

Second, state laws are preempted when they conflict with federal law … This includes cases where “compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility,” Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, (1963), and those instances where the challenged state law “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,” Hines

In effect, §3 adds a state-law penalty for conduct proscribed by federal law. The United States contends that this state enforcement mechanism intrudes on the field of alien registration, a field in which Congress has left no room for States to regulate …

The framework enacted by Congress leads to the conclusion here, as it did in Hines, that the Federal Government has occupied the field of alien registration. The federal statutory directives provide a full set of standards governing alien registration, including the punishment for noncompliance. It was designed as a “ ‘harmonious whole.’ ” Where Congress occupies an entire field, as it has in the field of alien registration, even complementary state regulation is impermissible. Field preemption reflects a congressional decision to foreclose any state regulation in the area, even if it is parallel to federal standards.

Federal law makes a single sovereign responsible for maintaining a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the Nation’s borders. If §3 of the Arizona statute were valid, every State could give itself independent authority to prosecute federal registration violations, “diminish[ing] the [Federal Government]’s control over enforcement” and “detract[ing] from the ‘integrated scheme of regulation’ created by Congress.” Wisconsin Dept. of Industry v. Gould Inc., (1986) …

Arizona contends that §3 can survive preemption because the provision has the same aim as federal law and adopts its substantive standards. This argument not only ignores the basic premise of field preemption—that States may not enter, in any respect, an area the Federal Government has reserved for itself—but also is unpersuasive on its own terms. Permitting the State to impose its own penalties for the federal offenses here would conflict with the careful framework Congress adopted … Were §3 to come into force, the State would have the power to bring criminal charges against individuals for violating a federal law even in circumstances where federal officials in charge of the comprehensive scheme determine that prosecution would frustrate federal policies.

These specific conflicts between state and federal law simply underscore the reason for field preemption. As it did in Hines, the Court now concludes that, with respect to the subject of alien registration, Congress intended to preclude States from “complement[ing] the federal law, or enforc[ing] additional or auxiliary regulations.” Section 3 is preempted by federal law.

Unlike §3, which replicates federal statutory requirements, §5(C) enacts a state criminal prohibition where no federal counterpart exists. The provision makes it a state misdemeanor for “an unauthorized alien to knowingly apply for work, solicit work in a public place or perform work as an employee or independent contractor” in Arizona … The United States contends that the provision upsets the balance struck by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and must be preempted as an obstacle to the federal plan of regulation and control …

Congress enacted IRCA as a comprehensive framework for “combating the employment of illegal aliens … ” The law makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire, recruit, refer, or continue to employ unauthorized workers … It also requires every employer to verify the employment authorization status of prospective employees … These requirements are enforced through criminal penalties and an escalating series of civil penalties tied to the number of times an employer has violated the provisions …

The legislative background of IRCA underscores the fact that Congress made a deliberate choice not to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek, or engage in, unauthorized employment. A commission established by Congress to study immigration policy and to make recommendations concluded these penalties would be “unnecessary and unworkable … ” IRCA’s framework reflects a considered judgment that making criminals out of aliens engaged in unauthorized work—aliens who already face the possibility of employer exploitation because of their removable status—would be inconsistent with federal policy and objectives …

The ordinary principles of preemption include the well-settled proposition that a state law is preempted where it “stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” Hines. Under §5(C) … Arizona law would interfere with the careful balance struck by Congress with respect to unauthorized employment of aliens. Although §5(C) attempts to achieve one of the same goals as federal law—the deterrence of unlawful employment—it involves a conflict in the method of enforcement. The Court has recognized that a “[c]onflict in technique can be fully as disruptive to the system Congress enacted as conflict in overt policy.” Motor Coach Employees v. Lockridge, (1971). The correct instruction to draw from the text, structure, and history of IRCA is that Congress decided it would be inappropriate to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek or engage in unauthorized employment. It follows that a state law to the contrary is an obstacle to the regulatory system Congress chose … Section 5(C) is preempted by federal law.

Section 6 of S.B. 1070 provides that a state officer, “without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe … [the person] has committed any public offense that makes [him] removable from the United States.” The United States argues that arrests authorized by this statute would be an obstacle to the removal system Congress created.

Section 6 attempts to provide state officers even greater authority to arrest aliens on the basis of possible removability than Congress has given to trained federal immigration officers. Under state law, officers who believe an alien is removable by reason of some “public offense” would have the power to conduct an arrest on that basis regardless of whether a federal warrant has issued or the alien is likely to escape. This state authority could be exercised without any input from the Federal Government about whether an arrest is warranted in a particular case. This would allow the State to achieve its own immigration policy. The result could be unnecessary harassment of some aliens (for instance, a veteran, college student, or someone assisting with a criminal investigation) whom federal officials determine should not be removed.

This is not the system Congress created. Federal law specifies limited circumstances in which state officers may perform the functions of an immigration officer. A principal example is when the Attorney General has granted that authority to specific officers in a formal agreement with a state or local government … Officers covered by these agreements are subject to the Attorney General’s direction and supervision. There are significant complexities involved in enforcing federal immigration law, including the determination whether a person is removable …

Congress has put in place a system in which state officers may not make warrantless arrests of aliens based on possible removability except in specific, limited circumstances. By nonetheless authorizing state and local officers to engage in these enforcement activities as a general matter, §6 creates an obstacle to the full purposes and objectives of Congress. Section 6 is preempted by federal law.

Section 2(B) of S. B. 1070 requires state officers to make a “reasonable attempt … to determine the immigration status” of any person they stop, detain, or arrest on some other legitimate basis if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States.” The law also provides that “[a]ny person who is arrested shall have the person’s immigration status determined before the person is released.” The accepted way to perform these status checks is to contact ICE, which maintains a database of immigration records …

The United States argues that making status verification mandatory interferes with the federal immigration scheme …

Congress has done nothing to suggest it is inappropriate to communicate with ICE in these situations, however. Indeed, it has encouraged the sharing of information about possible immigration violations …

The nature and timing of this case counsel caution in evaluating the validity of §2(B). The Federal Government has brought suit against a sovereign State to challenge the provision even before the law has gone into effect. There is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced. At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume §2(B) will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law … This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect …

The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration. With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the Nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.

The United States has established that §§3, 5(C), and 6 of S. B. 1070 are preempted. It was improper, however, to enjoin §2(B) before the state courts had an opportunity to construe it and without some showing that enforcement of the provision in fact conflicts with federal immigration law and its objectives.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is affirmed in part and reversed in part. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Government Powers and Limitations Copyright © 2024 by Rorie Spill Solberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book