Federalism's Give and Take

By narrowing federal oversight of wetlands, the Supreme Court continues its federalist revival. A five-justice conservative majority, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, has laid down a trail of precedents that chip away at federal authority in favor of states.

On Tuesday the court held that the federal Clean Water Act, which has been instrumental in improving the quality of rivers and lakes, did not extend to isolated ponds and wetlands. The chief justice's opinion zeroed in on the law's wording and Congress's intent. He found no justification for blocking an Illinois solid waste agency's plan to use such a site, an abandoned strip mine, as a landfill.

Rehnquist avoided a broader question of whether the Constitution's clause giving Congress the ability to regulate interstate commerce applies in this case because the wetlands are home to migratory birds. Rather, he said Congress acknowledged the "primary" responsibilities of the states in water and land use in the Clean Water Act. He noted, however, that the court has ruled twice before in just six years that the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause, though broad, is not unlimited.

The court's dissenters disagreed on nearly every point. They found a broader interpretation of the law's reach "manifestly reasonable."

The push and pull over the scope of federal law is a healthy process played out in both courts and politics. In emphasizing the rights and responsibilities of states, the court's majority makes a key point. But when states and localities fall short, Congress can decide if it should step in.

For now, the court has trimmed federal power. The states must now pick up any slack.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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