Most Americans believe that the federal government stands absolutely supreme.

Nobody can question its dictates.

Nobody can refuse its edicts.

Nobody can resist its commands.

This is simply not true.

Laws passed in pursuance of the Constitution do stand as the supreme law of the land. But that doesn’t in any way imply the federal government lords over everything and everybody in America.

First off, as James Madison asserted in Federalist 45, the powers of the federal government are “few and defined.” So federal power actually extends into only a few spheres. Most power and authority was left to the states and the people.

Second, even within those areas that the federal government does exercise authority, it cannot force state or local governments to cooperate in enforcement or implementation. The feds must exercise their authority on their own, unless the state and local governments choose to assist.

Simply put, the federal government cannot force state or local governments to act against their will.

This is known as the anti-commandeering doctrine, and it is well established in constitutional jurisprudence. Four Supreme Court opinions dating back to 1842 serve as the foundation for this legal doctrine.

In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), Justice Joseph Story held that the federal government could not force states to implement or carry out the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. He said that it was a federal law, and the federal government ultimately had to enforce it.

The fundamental principle applicable to all cases of this sort, would seem to be, that where the end is required, the means are given; and where the duty is enjoined, the ability to perform it is contemplated to exist on the part of the functionaries to whom it is entrusted. The clause is found in the national Constitution, and not in that of any state. It does not point out any state functionaries, or any state action to carry its provisions into effect. The states cannot, therefore, be compelled to enforce them; and it might well be deemed an unconstitutional exercise of the power of interpretation, to insist that the states are bound to provide means to carry into effect the duties of the national government, nowhere delegated or instrusted to them by the Constitution.

In the early 90s, the state of New York sued the federal government asserting provisions in the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985 were coercive and violated its sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment. The Court majority in New York v. United States (1992) agreed, holding that “because the Act’s take title provision offers the States a ‘choice’ between the two unconstitutionally coercive alternatives–either accepting ownership of waste or regulating according to Congress’ instructions–the provision lies outside Congress’ enumerated powers and is inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment.”

Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority in the 6-3 decision.

As an initial matter, Congress may not simply “commandee[r] the legislative processes of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.”

She later expounded on this point.

While Congress has substantial powers to govern the Nation directly, including in areas of intimate concern to the States, the Constitution has never been understood to confer upon Congress the ability to require the States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.

O’Connor argues that standing alone, both options offered to the State of New York for dealing with radioactive waste in the act represented an unconstitutional overreach. Therefore, forcing the state to choose between the two is also unconstitutional.

A choice between two unconstitutionally coercive regulatory techniques is no choice at all. Either way, “the Act commandeers the legislative processes of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.”

Printz v. United States (1997) serves as t