|Garcia v. San Antonio Transit Authority
[ Blackmun ]
[ Powell ]
[ Rehnquist ]
[ O'Connor ]
Garcia v. San Antonio Transit Authority
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.
We revisit in these cases an issue raised in National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976). In that litigation, this Court, by a sharply divided vote, ruled that the Commerce Clause does not empower Congress to enforce the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) against the States "in areas of traditional governmental functions." Id. at 852. Although National League of Cities supplied some examples of "traditional governmental functions," it did not offer a general explanation of how a "traditional" function is to be distinguished from a "nontraditional" one. Since then, federal and state courts have struggled with the task, thus imposed, of identifying a traditional function for purposes of state immunity under the Commerce Clause.
In the present cases, a Federal District Court concluded that municipal ownership and operation of a mass transit system is a traditional governmental function and thus, under National League of Cities, is exempt from the obligations imposed by the FLSA. Faced with the identical question, three Federal Courts of Appeals and one state appellate court have reached the opposite conclusion. [n1] [p531]
Our examination of this "function" standard applied in these and other cases over the last eight years now persuades us that the attempt to draw the boundaries of state regulatory immunity in terms of "traditional governmental function" is not only unworkable but is also inconsistent with established principles of federalism and, indeed, with those very federalism principles on which National League of Cities purported to rest. That case, accordingly, is overruled.
The history of public transportation in San Antonio, Tex., is characteristic of the history of local mass transit in the United States generally. Passenger transportation for hire within San Antonio originally was provided on a private basis by a local transportation company. In 1913, the Texas Legislature authorized the State's municipalities to regulate vehicles providing carriage for hire. 1913 Tex.Gen.Laws, ch. 147, § 4, ¶ 12, now codified, as amended, as Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 1175, §§ 20 and 21 (Vernon 1963). Two years later, San Antonio enacted an ordinance setting forth franchising, insurance, and safety requirements for passenger vehicles operated for hire. The city continued to rely on such publicly regulated private mass transit until 1959, when it purchased the privately owned San Antonio Transit Company and replaced it with a public authority known as the San Antonio Transit System (SATS). SATS operated until 1978, when the city transferred its facilities and equipment to appellee San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (SAMTA), a public mass transit authority organized on a county-wide basis. See generally Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 1118x (Vernon Supp.1984). SAMTA currently is the major provider of transportation in the San Antonio metropolitan area; between 1978 and 1980 alone, its vehicles traveled over 26 million route miles and carried over 63 million passengers. [p532]
As did other localities, San Antonio reached the point where it came to look to the Federal Government for financial assistance in maintaining its public mass transit. SATS managed to meet its operating expenses and bond obligations for the first decade of its existence without federal or local financial aid. By 1970, however, its financial position had deteriorated to the point where federal subsidies were vital for its continued operation. SATS' general manager that year testified before Congress that,
if we do not receive substantial help from the Federal Government, San Antonio may . . . join the growing ranks of cities that have inferior [public] transportation or may end up with no [public] transportation at all. [n2]
The principal federal program to which SATS and other mass transit systems looked for relief was the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (UMTA), Pub.L. 88-365, 78 Stat. 302, as amended, 49 U.S.C.App. § 1601 et seq., which provides substantial federal assistance to urban mass transit programs. See generally Jackson Transit Authority v. Transit Union, 457 U.S. 15 (1982). UMTA now authorizes the Department of Transportation to fund 75 percent of the capital outlays and up to 50 percent of the operating expenses of qualifying mass transit programs. §§ 4(a), 5(d) and (e), 49 U.S.C.App. §§ 1603(a), 1604(d) and (e). SATS received its first UMTA subsidy, a $4.1 million capital grant, in December, 1970. From then until February, 1980, SATS and SAMTA received over $51 million in UMTA grants -- more than $31 million in capital grants, over $20 million in operating assistance, and a minor amount in technical assistance. During SAMTA's first two fiscal years, it received $12.5 million in UMTA operating grants, $26.8 million from sales taxes, and only $10.1 million from fares. Federal subsidies [p533] and local sales taxes currently account for about 75 percent of SAMTA's operating expenses.
The present controversy concerns the extent to which SAMTA may be subjected to the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA. When the FLSA was enacted in 1938, its wage and overtime provisions did not apply to local mass transit employees or, indeed, to employees of state and local governments. §§ 3(d), 13(a)(9), 52 Stat. 1060, 1067. In 1961, Congress extended minimum wage coverage to employees of any private mass transit carrier whose annual gross revenue was not less than $1 million. Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1961, §§ 2(c), 9, 75 Stat. 65, 71. Five years later, Congress extended FLSA coverage to state and local government employees for the first time by withdrawing the minimum wage and overtime exemptions from public hospitals, schools, and mass transit carriers whose rates and services were subject to state regulation. Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1966, §§ 102(a) and (b), 80 Stat. 831. At the same time, Congress eliminated the overtime exemption for all mass transit employees other than drivers, operators, and conductors. § 206(c), 80 Stat. 836. The application of the FLSA to public schools and hospitals was ruled to be within Congress' power under the Commerce Clause. Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968).
The FLSA obligations of public mass transit systems like SATS were expanded in 1974 when Congress provided for the progressive repeal of the surviving overtime exemption for mass transit employees. Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1974, § 21(b), 88 Stat. 68. Congress simultaneously brought the States and their subdivisions further within the ambit of the FLSA by extending FLSA coverage to virtually all state and local government employees. §§ 6(a)(1) and (6), 88 Stat. 58, 60, 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(d) and (x). SATS complied with the FLSA's overtime requirements until 1976, when this Court, in National League of Cities, overruled Maryland v. Wirtz and held that the FLSA could not be [p534] applied constitutionally to the "traditional governmental functions" of state and local governments. Four months after National League of Cities was handed down, SATS informed its employees that the decision relieved SATS of its overtime obligations under the FLSA. [n3]
Matters rested there until September 17, 1979, when the Wage and Hour Administration of the Department of Labor issued an opinion that SAMTA's operations "are not constitutionally immune from the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act" under National League of Cities. Opinion WH-499, 6 LRR 91:1138. On November 21 of that year, SAMTA filed this action against the Secretary of Labor in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. It sought a declaratory judgment that, contrary to the Wage and Hour Administration's determination, National League of Cities precluded the application of the FLSA's overtime requirements to SAMTA's operations. The Secretary counterclaimed under 29 U.S.C. § 217 for enforcement of the overtime and recordkeeping requirements of the FLSA. On the same day that SAMTA filed its action, appellant Garcia and several other SAMTA employees brought suit against SAMTA in the same District Court for overtime pay under the FLSA. Garcia v. SAMTA, Civil Action No. SA 79 CA 458. The District Court has stayed that action pending the outcome of these cases, but it allowed Garcia to intervene in the present litigation as a defendant in support of the Secretary. One month after SAMTA brought suit, the Department of Labor formally amended its FLSA interpretive regulations to provide that publicly owned local mass transit systems are not entitled to immunity under [p535] National League of Cities. 44 Fed.Reg. 75630 (1979), codified as 29 CFR § 775.3(b)(3) (1984).
On November 17, 1981, the District Court granted SAMTA's motion for summary judgment and denied the Secretary's and Garcia's cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Without further explanation, the District Court ruled that
local public mass transit systems (including [SAMTA]) constitute integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions
under National League of Cities. App. D to Juris. Statement in No. 82-1913, p. 24a. The Secretary and Garcia both appealed directly to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1252. During the pendency of those appeals, Transportation Union v. Long Island R. Co., 455 U.S. 678 (1982), was decided. In that case, the Court ruled that commuter rail service provided by the state-owned Long Island Rail Road did not constitute a "traditional governmental function," and hence did not enjoy constitutional immunity, under National League of Cities, from the requirements of the Railway Labor Act. Thereafter, it vacated the District Court's judgment in the present cases and remanded them for further consideration in the light of Long Island. 457 U.S. 1102 (1982).
On remand, the District Court adhered to its original view and again entered judgment for SAMTA. 557 F.Supp. 445 (1983). The court looked first to what it regarded as the "historical reality" of state involvement in mass transit. It recognized that States not always had owned and operated mass transit systems, but concluded that they had engaged in a longstanding pattern of public regulation, and that this regulatory tradition gave rise to an "inference of sovereignty." Id. at 447-448. The court next looked to the record of federal involvement in the field, and concluded that constitutional immunity would not result in an erosion of federal authority with respect to state-owned mass transit systems, because many federal statutes themselves contain exemptions for States, and thus make the withdrawal of federal [p536] regulatory power over public mass transit systems a supervening federal policy. Id. at 448-450. Although the Federal Government's authority over employee wages under the FLSA obviously would be eroded, Congress had not asserted any interest in the wages of public mass transit employees until 1966, and hence had not established a longstanding federal interest in the field, in contrast to the century-old federal regulatory presence in the railroad industry found significant for the decision in Long Island. Finally, the court compared mass transit to the list of functions identified as constitutionally immune in National League of Cities and concluded that it did not differ from those functions in any material respect. The court stated:
If transit is to be distinguished from the exempt [National League of Cities] functions, it will have to be by identifying a traditional state function in the same way pornography is sometimes identified: someone knows it when they see it, but they can't describe it.
557 F.Supp. at 453. [n4]
The Secretary and Garcia again took direct appeals from the District Court's judgment. We noted probable jurisdiction. 464 U.S. 812 (1983). After initial argument, the cases were restored to our calendar for reargument, and the parties were requested to brief and argue the following additional question:
Appellees have not argued that SAMTA is immune from regulation under the FLSA on the ground that it is a local transit system engaged in intrastate commercial activity. In a practical sense, SAMTA's operations might well be characterized as "local." Nonetheless, it long has been settled that Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause extends to intrastate economic activities that affect interstate commerce. See, e.g., Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Recl. Assn., 452 U.S. 264, 276-277 (1981); Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241, 258 (1964); Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111, 125 (1942); United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100 (1941). Were SAMTA a privately owned and operated enterprise, it could not credibly argue that Congress exceeded the bounds of its Commerce Clause powers in prescribing minimum wages and overtime rates for SAMTA's employees. Any constitutional exemption from the requirements of the FLSA therefore must rest on SAMTA's status as a governmental entity, rather than on the "local" nature of its operations.
The prerequisites for governmental immunity under National League of Cities were summarized by this Court in Hodel, supra. Under that summary, four conditions must be satisfied before a state activity may be deemed immune from a particular federal regulation under the Commerce Clause. First, it is said that the federal statute at issue must regulate "the ‘states as States.'" Second, the statute must "address matters that are indisputably ‘attribute[s] of state sovereignty.'" Third, state compliance with the federal obligation must "directly impair [the States'] ability ‘to structure integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions.'" Finally, the relation of state and federal interests must not be such that "the nature of the federal interest . . . justifies state submission." 452 U.S. at 287-288, and n. 29, quoting National League of Cities, 426 U.S. at 845, 852, 854. [p538]
The controversy in the present cases has focused on the third Hodel requirement -- that the challenged federal statute trench on "traditional governmental functions." The District Court voiced a common concern: "Despite the abundance of adjectives, identifying which particular state functions are immune remains difficult." 557 F.Supp. at 447. Just how troublesome the task has been is revealed by the results reached in other federal cases. Thus, courts have held that regulating ambulance services, Gold Cross Ambulance v. City of Kansas City, 538 F.Supp. 956, 967-969 (WD Mo.1982), aff'd on other grounds, 705 F.2d 1005 (CA8 1983), cert. pending, No. 83-138; licensing automobile drivers, United States v. Best, 573 F.2d 1095, 1102-1103 (CA9 1978); operating a municipal airport, Amersbach v. City of Cleveland, 598 F.2d 1033, 1037-1038 (CA6 1979); performing solid waste disposal, Hybud Equipment Corp. v. City of Akron, 654 F.2d 1187, 1196 (CA6 1981); and operating a highway authority, Molina-Estrada v. Puerto Rico Highway Authority, 680 F.2d 841, 845-846 (CA1 1982), are functions protected under National League of Cities. At the same time, courts have held that issuance of industrial development bonds, Woods v. Homes and Structures of Pittsburg, Kansas, Inc., 489 F.Supp. 1270, 1296-1297 (Kan.1980); regulation of intrastate natural gas sales, Oklahoma ex rel. Derryberry v. FERC, 494 F.Supp. 636, 657 (WD Okla.1980), aff'd, 661 F.2d 832 (CA10 1981), cert. denied sub nom. Texas v. FERC, 457 U.S. 1105 (1982); regulation of traffic on public roads, Friends of the Earth v. Carey, 552 F.2d 25, 38 (CA2), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 902 (1977); regulation of air transportation, Hughes Air Corp. v. Public Utilities Comm'n of Cal., 644 F.2d 1334, 1340-1341 (CA9 1981); operation of a telephone system, Puerto Rico Tel. Co. v. FCC, 553 F.2d 694, 700-701 (CA1 1977); leasing and sale of natural gas, Public Service Co. of N.C. v. FERC, 587 F.2d 716, 721 (CA5), cert. denied sub nom. Louisiana v. FERC, 444 U.S. 879 (1979); operation of a mental health facility, Williams v. Eastside Mental [p539] Health Center, Inc., 669 F.2d 671, 680-681 (CA11), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 976 (1982); and provision of in-house domestic services for the aged and handicapped, Bonnette v. California Health and Welfare Agency, 704 F.2d 1465, 1472 (CA9 1983), are not entitled to immunity. We find it difficult, if not impossible, to identify an organizing principle that places each of the cases in the first group on one side of a line and each of the cases in the second group on the other side. The constitutional distinction between licensing drivers and regulating traffic, for example, or between operating a highway authority and operating a mental health facility, is elusive, at best.
Thus far, this Court itself has made little headway in defining the scope of the governmental functions deemed protected under National League of Cities. In that case, the Court set forth examples of protected and unprotected functions, see 426 U.S. at 851, 854, n. 18, but provided no explanation of how those examples were identified. The only other case in which the Court has had occasion to address the problem is Long Island. [n5] We there observed:
The determination of whether a federal law impairs a state's authority with respect to "areas of traditional [state] functions" may at times be a difficult one.
455 U.S. at 684, quoting National League of Cities, 426 U.S. at 852. The accuracy of that statement is demonstrated by this Court's own difficulties in Long Island in developing a workable standard for "traditional governmental functions." We relied in large part there on "the historical reality that the operation of railroads is not among the functions traditionally performed by state and local governments," but we [p540] simultaneously disavowed "a static historical view of state functions generally immune from federal regulation." 455 U.S. at 686 (first emphasis added; second emphasis in original). We held that the inquiry into a particular function's "traditional" nature was merely a means of determining whether the federal statute at issue unduly handicaps "basic state prerogatives," id. at 686-687, but we did not offer an explanation of what makes one state function a "basic prerogative" and another function not basic. Finally, having disclaimed a rigid reliance on the historical pedigree of state involvement in a particular area, we nonetheless found it appropriate to emphasize the extended historical record of federal involvement in the field of rail transportation. Id. at 687-689.
Many constitutional standards involve "undoubte[d] . . . gray areas," Fry v. United States, 421 U.S. 542, 558 (1975) (dissenting opinion), and, despite the difficulties that this Court and other courts have encountered so far, it normally might be fair to venture the assumption that case-by-case development would lead to a workable standard for determining whether a particular governmental function should be immune from federal regulation under the Commerce Clause. A further cautionary note is sounded, however, by the Court's experience in the related field of state immunity from federal taxation. In South Carolina v. United States, 199 U.S. 437 (1905), the Court held for the first time that the state tax immunity recognized in Collector v. Day, 11 Wall. 113 (1871), extended only to the "ordinary" and "strictly governmental" instrumentalities of state governments, and not to instrumentalities "used by the State in the carrying on of an ordinary private business." 199 U.S. at 451, 461. While the Court applied the distinction outlined in South Carolina for the following 40 years, at no time during that period did the Court develop a consistent formulation of the kinds of governmental functions that were entitled to immunity. The Court identified the protected functions at various times as "essential," "usual," "traditional," or "strictly governmental." [n6] [p541] While "these differences in phraseology . . . must not be too literally contradistinguished," Brush v. Commissioner, 300 U.S. 352, 362 (1937), they reflect an inability to specify precisely what aspects of a governmental function made it necessary to the "unimpaired existence" of the States. Collector v. Day, 11 Wall. at 127. Indeed, the Court ultimately chose
not, by an attempt to formulate any general test, [to] risk embarrassing the decision of cases [concerning] activities of a different kind which may arise in the future.
Brush v. Commissioner, 300 U.S. at 365.
If these tax immunity cases had any common thread, it was in the attempt to distinguish between "governmental" and "proprietary" functions. [n7] To say that the distinction between [p542] "governmental" and "proprietary" proved to be stable, however, would be something of an overstatement. In 1911, for example, the Court declared that the provision of a municipal water supply "is no part of the essential governmental functions of a State." Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., 220 U.S. 107, 172. Twenty-six years later, without any intervening change in the applicable legal standards, the Court simply rejected its earlier position and decided that the provision of a municipal water supply was immune from federal taxation as an essential governmental function, even though municipal waterworks long had been operated for profit by private industry. Brush v. Commissioner, 300 U.S. at 370-373. At the same time that the Court was holding a municipal water supply to be immune from federal taxes, it had held that a state-run commuter rail system was not immune. Helvering v. Powers, 293 U.S. 214 (1934). Justice Black, in Helvering v. Gerhardt, 304 U.S. 405, 427 (1938), was moved to observe:
An implied constitutional distinction which taxes income of an officer of a state-operated transportation system and exempts income of the manager of a municipal water works system manifests the uncertainty created by the "essential" and "non-essential" test
(concurring opinion). It was this uncertainty and instability that led the Court shortly thereafter, in New York v. United States, 326 U.S. 572 (1946), unanimously to conclude that the distinction between "governmental" and "proprietary" functions was "untenable," and must be abandoned. See id. at 583 (opinion of Frankfurter, J., joined by Rutledge, J.); id. at 586 (Stone, C.J., concurring, joined by Reed, Murphy, and Burton, JJ.); id. at 590-596 (Douglas, J., dissenting, joined by Black, J.). See also Massachusetts v. United States, 435 U.S. 444, 457, and n. 14 (1978) (plurality opinion); Case v. Bowles, 327 U.S. 92, 101 (1946). [p543]
Even during the heyday of the governmental/proprietary distinction in intergovernmental tax immunity doctrine, the Court never explained the constitutional basis for that distinction. In South Carolina, it expressed its concern that unlimited state immunity from federal taxation would allow the States to undermine the Federal Government's tax base by expanding into previously private sectors of the economy. See 199 U.S. at 454-455. [n8] Although the need to reconcile state and federal interests obviously demanded that state immunity have some limiting principle, the Court did not try to justify the particular result it reached; it simply concluded that a "line [must] be drawn," id. at 456, and proceeded to draw that line. The Court's elaborations in later cases, such as the assertion in Ohio v. Helvering, 292 U.S. 360, 369 (1934), that "[w]hen a state enters the market place seeking customers, it divests itself of its quasi sovereignty pro tanto," sound more of ipse dixit than reasoned explanation. This inability to give principled content to the distinction between "governmental" and "proprietary," no less significantly than its unworkability, led the Court to abandon the distinction in New York v. United States.
The distinction the Court discarded as unworkable in the field of tax immunity has proved no more fruitful in the field of regulatory immunity under the Commerce Clause. Neither do any of the alternative standards that might be employed to distinguish between protected and unprotected governmental functions appear manageable. We rejected the possibility of making immunity turn on a purely historical standard of "tradition" in Long Island, and properly so. The most obvious defect of a historical approach to state immunity is that it prevents a court from accommodating changes in the historical functions of States, changes that have resulted [p544] in a number of once-private functions like education being assumed by the States and their subdivisions. [n9] At the same time, the only apparent virtue of a rigorous historical standard, namely, its promise of a reasonably objective measure for state immunity, is illusory. Reliance on history as an organizing principle results in line-drawing of the most arbitrary sort; the genesis of state governmental functions stretches over a historical continuum from before the Revolution to the present, and courts would have to decide by fiat precisely how longstanding a pattern of state involvement had to be for federal regulatory authority to be defeated. [n10] [p545]
A nonhistorical standard for selecting immune governmental functions is likely to be just as unworkable as is a historical standard. The goal of identifying "uniquely" governmental functions, for example, has been rejected by the Court in the field of government tort liability in part because the notion of a "uniquely" governmental function is unmanageable. See Indian Towing Co. v. United States, 350 U.S. 61, 64-68 (1955); see also Lafayette v. Louisiana Power & Light Co., 435 U.S. 389, 433 (1978) (dissenting opinion). Another possibility would be to confine immunity to "necessary" governmental services, that is, services that would be provided inadequately or not at all unless the government provided them. Cf. Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., 220 U.S. at 172. The set of services that fits into this category, however, may well be negligible. The fact that an unregulated market produces less of some service than a State deems desirable does not mean that the State itself must provide the service; in most if not all cases, the State can "contract out" by hiring private firms to provide the service or simply by providing subsidies to existing suppliers. It also is open to question how well equipped courts are to make this kind of determination about the workings of economic markets.
We believe, however, that there is a more fundamental problem at work here, a problem that explains why the Court was never able to provide a basis for the governmental/proprietary distinction in the intergovernmental tax immunity cases and why an attempt to draw similar distinctions with respect to federal regulatory authority under National League of Cities is unlikely to succeed regardless of how the distinctions are phrased. The problem is that neither the governmental/proprietary distinction nor any [p546] other that purports to separate out important governmental functions can be faithful to the role of federalism in a democratic society. The essence of our federal system is that, within the realm of authority left open to them under the Constitution, the States must be equally free to engage in any activity that their citizens choose for the common weal, no matter how unorthodox or unnecessary anyone else -- including the judiciary -- deems state involvement to be. Any rule of state immunity that looks to the "traditional," "integral," or "necessary" nature of governmental functions inevitably invites an unelected federal judiciary to make decisions about which state policies it favors and which ones it dislikes. "The science of government . . . is the science of experiment," Anderson v. Dunn, 6 Wheat. 204, 226 (1821), and the States cannot serve as laboratories for social and economic experiment, see New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting), if they must pay an added price when they meet the changing needs of their citizenry by taking up functions that an earlier day and a different society left in private hands. In the words of Justice Black:
There is not, and there cannot be, any unchanging line of demarcation between essential and nonessential governmental functions. Many governmental functions of today have at some time in the past been nongovernmental. The genius of our government provides that, within the sphere of constitutional action, the people -- acting not through the courts but through their elected legislative representatives -- have the power to determine, as conditions demand, what services and functions the public welfare requires.
Helvering v. Gerhardt, 304 U.S. at 427 (concurring opinion).
We therefore now reject, as unsound in principle and unworkable in practice, a rule of state immunity from federal regulation that turns on a judicial appraisal of whether a [p547] particular governmental function is "integral" or "traditional." Any such rule leads to inconsistent results at the same time that it disserves principles of democratic self-governance, and it breeds inconsistency precisely because it is divorced from those principles. If there are to be limits on the Federal Government's power to interfere with state functions -- as undoubtedly there are -- we must look elsewhere to find them. We accordingly return to the underlying issue that confronted this Court in National League of Cities -- the manner in which the Constitution insulates States from the reach of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause.
The central theme of National League of Cities was that the States occupy a special position in our constitutional system, and that the scope of Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause must reflect that position. Of course, the Commerce Clause, by its specific language, does not provide any special limitation on Congress' actions with respect to the States. See EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. 226, 248 (1983) (concurring opinion). It is equally true, however, that the text of the Constitution provides the beginning, rather than the final answer, to every inquiry into questions of federalism, for "[b]ehind the words of the constitutional provisions are postulates which limit and control." Monaco v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 313, 322 (1934). National League of Cities reflected the general conviction that the Constitution precludes "the National Government [from] devour[ing] the essentials of state sovereignty." Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. at 205 (dissenting opinion). In order to be faithful to the underlying federal premises of the Constitution, courts must look for the "postulates which limit and control."
What has proved problematic is not the perception that the Constitution's federal structure imposes limitations on the Commerce Clause, but rather the nature and content of those limitations. One approach to defining the limits on Congress' [p548] authority to regulate the States under the Commerce Clause is to identify certain underlying elements of political sovereignty that are deemed essential to the States' "separate and independent existence." Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wall. 71, 76 (1869). This approach obviously underlay the Court's use of the "traditional governmental function" concept in National League of Cities. It also has led to the separate requirement that the challenged federal statute "address matters that are indisputably ‘attribute[s] of state sovereignty.'" Hodel, 452 U.S. at 288, quoting National League of Cities, 426 U.S. at 845. In National League of Cities itself, for example, the Court concluded that decisions by a State concerning the wages and hours of its employees are an "undoubted attribute of state sovereignty." 426 U.S. at 845. The opinion did not explain what aspects of such decisions made them such an "undoubted attribute," and the Court since then has remarked on the uncertain scope of the concept. See EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. at 238, n. 11. The point of the inquiry, however, has remained to single out particular features of a State's internal governance that are deemed to be intrinsic parts of state sovereignty. We doubt that courts ultimately can identify principled constitutional limitations on the scope of Congress' Commerce Clause powers over the States merely by relying on a priori definitions of state sovereignty. In part, this is because of the elusiveness of objective criteria for "fundamental" elements of state sovereignty, a problem we have witnessed in the search for "traditional governmental functions." There is, however, a more fundamental reason: the sovereignty of the States is limited by the Constitution itself. A variety of sovereign powers, for example, are withdrawn from the States by Article I, § 10. Section 8 of the same Article works an equally sharp contraction of state sovereignty by authorizing Congress to exercise a wide range of legislative powers and (in conjunction with the Supremacy Clause of Article VI) to displace contrary state legislation. See [p549] Hodel, 452 U.S. at 290-292. By providing for final review of questions of federal law in this Court, Article III curtails the sovereign power of the States' judiciaries to make authoritative determinations of law. See Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 1 Wheat. 304 (1816). Finally, the developed application, through the Fourteenth Amendment, of the greater part of the Bill of Rights to the States limits the sovereign authority that States otherwise would possess to legislate with respect to their citizens and to conduct their own affairs.
The States unquestionably do "retai[n] a significant measure of sovereign authority." EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. at 269 (POWELL, J., dissenting). They do so, however, only to the extent that the Constitution has not divested them of their original powers and transferred those powers to the Federal Government. In the words of James Madison to the Members of the First Congress:
Interference with the power of the States was no constitutional criterion of the power of Congress. If the power was not given, Congress could not exercise it; if given, they might exercise it, although it should interfere with the laws, or even the Constitution of the States.
2 Annals of Cong. 1897 (1791). Justice Field made the same point in the course of his defense of state autonomy in his dissenting opinion in Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Baugh, 149 U.S. 368, 401 (1893), a defense quoted with approval in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78-79 (1938):
[T]he Constitution of the United States . . . recognizes and preserves the autonomy and independence of the States -- independence in their legislative and independence in their judicial departments. [Federal] [s]upervision over either the legislative or the judicial action of the States is in no case permissible except as to matters by the Constitution specifically authorized or delegated to the United States. Any interference with either, except as thus permitted, is an invasion of [p550] the authority of the State and, to that extent, a denial of its independence.
As a result, to say that the Constitution assumes the continued role of the States is to say little about the nature of that role. Only recently, this Court recognized that the purpose of the constitutional immunity recognized in National League of Cities is not to preserve "a sacred province of state autonomy." EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. at 236. With rare exceptions, like the guarantee, in Article IV, § 3, of state territorial integrity, the Constitution does not carve out express elements of state sovereignty that Congress may not employ its delegated powers to displace. James Wilson reminded the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787:
It is true, indeed, sir, although it presupposes the existence of state governments, yet this Constitution does not suppose them to be the sole power to be respected.
2 Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution 439 (J. Elliot 2d ed. 1876) (Elliot). The power of the Federal Government is a "power to be respected" as well, and the fact that the States remain sovereign as to all powers not vested in Congress or denied them by the Constitution offers no guidance about where the frontier between state and federal power lies. In short, we have no license to employ freestanding conceptions of state sovereignty when measuring congressional authority under the Commerce Clause.
When we look for the States"'residuary and inviolable sovereignty," The Federalist No. 39, p. 285 (B. Wright ed.1961) (J. Madison), in the shape of the constitutional scheme, rather than in predetermined notions of sovereign power, a different measure of state sovereignty emerges. Apart from the limitation on federal authority inherent in the delegated nature of Congress' Article I powers, the principal means chosen by the Framers to ensure the role of the States in the federal system lies in the structure of the Federal Government itself. It is no novelty to observe that the composition of the Federal [p551] Government was designed in large part to protect the States from overreaching by Congress. [n11] The Framers thus gave the States a role in the selection both of the Executive and the Legislative Branches of the Federal Government. The States were vested with indirect influence over the House of Representatives and the Presidency by their control of electoral qualifications and their role in Presidential elections. U.S.Const., Art. I, § 2, and Art. II, § 1. They were given more direct influence in the Senate, where each State received equal representation and each Senator was to be selected by the legislature of his State. Art. I, § 3. The significance attached to the States' equal representation in the Senate is underscored by the prohibition of any constitutional amendment divesting a State of equal representation without the State's consent. Art. V.
The extent to which the structure of the Federal Government itself was relied on to insulate the interests of the States is evident in the views of the Framers. James Madison explained that the Federal Government
will partake sufficiently of the spirit [of the States], to be disinclined to invade the rights of the individual States, or the prerogatives of their governments.
The Federalist No. 46, p. 332 (B. Wright ed.1961). Similarly, James Wilson observed that "it was a favorite object in the Convention" to provide for the security of the States against federal encroachment, and that the structure of the Federal Government itself served that end. 2 Elliot at 438-439. Madison placed particular reliance on the equal representation of the States in the Senate, which he saw as
at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual [p552] States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty.
The Federalist No. 62, p. 408 (B. Wright ed.1961). He further noted that
the residuary sovereignty of the States [is] implied and secured by that principle of representation in one branch of the [federal] legislature.
(Emphasis added.) The Federalist No. 43, p. 315 (B. Wright ed.1961). See also McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 435 (1819). In short, the Framers chose to rely on a federal system in which special restraints on federal power over the States inhered principally in the workings of the National Government itself, rather than in discrete limitations on the objects of federal authority. State sovereign interests, then, are more properly protected by procedural safeguards inherent in the structure of the federal system than by judicially created limitations on federal power.
The effectiveness of the federal political process in preserving the States' interests is apparent even today in the course of federal legislation. On the one hand, the States have been able to direct a substantial proportion of federal revenues into their own treasuries in the form of general and program-specific grants in aid. The federal role in assisting state and local governments is a longstanding one; Congress provided federal land grants to finance state governments from the beginning of the Republic, and direct cash grants were awarded as early as 1887 under the Hatch Act. [n12] In the past quarter century alone, federal grants to States and localities have grown from $7 billion to $96 billion. [n13] As a result, federal [p553] grants now account for about one-fifth of state and local government expenditures. [n14] The States have obtained federal funding for such services as police and fire protection, education, public health and hospitals, parks and recreation, and sanitation. [n15] Moreover, at the same time that the States have exercised their influence to obtain federal support, they have been able to exempt themselves from a wide variety of obligations imposed by Congress under the Commerce Clause. For example, the Federal Power Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Sherman Act all contain express or implied exemptions for States and their subdivisions. [n16] The fact that some federal statutes such as the FLSA extend general obligations to the States cannot obscure the extent to which the political position of [p554] the States in the federal system has served to minimize the burdens that the States bear under the Commerce Clause. [n17]
We realize that changes in the structure of the Federal Government have taken place since 1789, not the least of which has been the substitution of popular election of Senators by the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, and that these changes may work to alter the influence of the States in the federal political process. [n18] Nonetheless, against this background, we are convinced that the fundamental limitation that the constitutional scheme imposes on the Commerce Clause to protect the "States as States" is one of process, rather than one of result. Any substantive restraint on the exercise of Commerce Clause powers must find its justification in the procedural nature of this basic limitation, and it must be tailored to compensate for possible failings in the national political process, rather than to dictate a "sacred province of state autonomy." EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. at 236.
Insofar as the present cases are concerned, then, we need go no further than to state that we perceive nothing in the overtime and minimum wage requirements of the FLSA, as applied to SAMTA, that is destructive of state sovereignty or violative of any constitutional provision. SAMTA faces nothing more than the same minimum wage and overtime obligations that hundreds of thousands of other employers, public as well as private, have to meet. [p555]
In these cases, the status of public mass transit simply underscores the extent to which the structural protections of the Constitution insulate the States from federally imposed burdens. When Congress first subjected state mass transit systems to FLSA obligations in 1966, and when it expanded those obligations in 1974, it simultaneously provided extensive funding for state and local mass transit through UMTA. In the two decades since its enactment, UMTA has provided over $22 billion in mass transit aid to States and localities. [n19] In 1983 alone, UMTA funding amounted to $3.7 billion. [n20] As noted above, SAMTA and its immediate predecessor have received a substantial amount of UMTA funding, including over $12 million during SAMTA's first two fiscal years alone. In short, Congress has not simply placed a financial burden on the shoulders of States and localities that operate mass transit systems, but has provided substantial countervailing financial assistance as well, assistance that may leave individual mass transit systems better off than they would have been had Congress never intervened at all in the area. Congress' treatment of public mass transit reinforces our conviction that the national political process systematically protects States from the risk of having their functions in that area handicapped by Commerce Clause regulation. [n21]
This analysis makes clear that Congress' action in affording SAMTA employees the protections of the wage and hour [p556] provisions of the FLSA contravened no affirmative limit on Congress' power under the Commerce Clause. The judgment of the District Court therefore must be reversed.
Of course, we continue to recognize that the States occupy a special and specific position in our constitutional system, and that the scope of Congress' authority under the Commerce Clause must reflect that position. But the principal and basic limit on the federal commerce power is that inherent in all congressional action -- the built-in restraints that our system provides through state participation in federal governmental action. The political process ensures that laws that unduly burden the States will not be promulgated. In the factual setting of these cases, the internal safeguards of the political process have performed as intended.
These cases do not require us to identify or define what affirmative limits the constitutional structure might impose on federal action affecting the States under the Commerce Clause. See Coyle v. Oklahoma, 221 U.S. 559 (1911). We note and accept Justice Frankfurter's observation in New York v. United States, 326 U.S. 572, 583 (1946):
The process of Constitutional adjudication does not thrive on conjuring up horrible possibilities that never happen in the real world and devising doctrines sufficiently comprehensive in detail to cover the remotest contingency. Nor need we go beyond what is required for a reasoned disposition of the kind of controversy now before the Court.
Though the separate concurrence providing the fifth vote in National League of Cities was "not untroubled by certain possible implications" of the decision, 426 U.S. at 856, the Court in that case attempted to articulate affirmative limits on the Commerce Clause power in terms of core governmental functions and fundamental attributes of state sovereignty. But the model of democratic decisionmaking the [p557] Court there identified underestimated, in our view, the solicitude of the national political process for the continued vitality of the States. Attempts by other courts since then to draw guidance from this model have proved it both impracticable and doctrinally barren. In sum, in National League of Cities, the Court tried to repair what did not need repair.
We do not lightly overrule recent precedent. [n22] We have not hesitated, however, when it has become apparent that a prior decision has departed from a proper understanding of congressional power under the Commerce Clause. See United States v. Darby, 312 U.S. 100, 116-117 (1941). Due respect for the reach of congressional power within the federal system mandates that we do so now.
National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833 (1976), is overruled. The judgment of the District Court is reversed, and these cases are remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
* Together with No. 82-1951, Donovan, Secretary of Labor v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority et al., also on appeal from the same court.
1. See Dove v. Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, 701 F.2d 50 (CA6 1983), cert. pending sub nom. City of Macon v. Joiner, No. 82-1974; Alewine v. City Council of Augusta, Ga., 699 F.2d 1060 (CA11 1983), cert. pending, No. 83-257; Kramer v. New Castle Area Transit Authority, 677 F.2d 308 (CA3 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1146 (1983); Francis v. City of Tallahassee, 424 So.2d 61 (Fla.App.1982).
2. Urban Mass Transportation: Hearings on H.R. 6663 et al. before the Subcommittee on Housing of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, 91st Cong., 2d Sess., 419 (190) (statement of F. Norman Hill).
3. Neither SATS nor SAMTA appears to have attempted to avoid the FLSA's minimum wage provisions. We are informed that basic wage levels in the mass transit industry traditionally have been well in excess of the minimum wages prescribed by the FLSA. See Brief for National League of Cities et al. as Amici Curiae 7-8.
4. The District Court also analyzed the status of mass transit under the four-part test devised by the Sixth Circuit in Amersbach v. City of Cleveland, 598 F.2d 1033 (1979). In that case, the Court of Appeals looked to (1) whether the function benefits the community as a whole and is made available at little or no expense; (2) whether it is undertaken for public service or pecuniary gain; (3) whether government is its principal provider; and (4) whether government is particularly suited to perform it because of a community-wide need. Id. at 1037.
5. See also however, Jefferson County Pharmaceutical Assn. v. Abbott Laboratories, 460 U.S. 150, 154, n. 6 (1983); FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U.S. 742, 781, and n. 7 (1982) (opinion concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part); Fry v. United States, 421 U.S. 542, 558, and n. 2 (1975) (dissenting opinion).
6. See Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., 220 U.S. 107, 172 (1911) ("essential"); Helvering v. Therrell, 303 U.S. 218, 225 (1938) (same); Helvering v. Powers, 293 U.S. 214, 225 (1934) ("usual"); United States v. California, 297 U.S. 175, 185 (1936) ("activities in which the states have traditionally engaged"); South Carolina v. United States, 199 U.S. 437, 461 (1905) ("strictly governmental").
7. In South Carolina, the Court relied on the concept of "strictly governmental" functions to uphold the application of a federal liquor license tax to a state-owned liquor distribution monopoly. In Flint, the Court stated:
The true distinction is between . . . those operations of the States essential to the execution of its [sic] governmental functions, and which the State can only do itself, and those activities which are of a private character;
under this standard,
[i]t is no part of the essential governmental functions of a State to provide means of transportation, supply artificial light, water and the like.
220 U.S. at 172. In Ohio v. Helvering, 292 U.S. 360 (1934), another case involving a state liquor distribution monopoly, the Court stated that "the business of buying and selling commodities . . . is not the performance of a governmental function," and that,
[w]hen a state enters the marketplace seeking customers, it divests itself of its quasi sovereignty pro tanto, and takes on the character of a trader, so far, at least, as the taxing power of the federal government is concerned.
Id. at 369. In Powers, the Court upheld the application of the federal income tax to the income of trustees of a state-operated commuter railroad; the Court reiterated that
the State cannot withdraw sources of revenue from the federal taxing power by engaging in businesses which constitute a departure from usual governmental functions and to which, by reason of their nature, the federal taxing power would normally extend,
regardless of the fact that the proprietary enterprises "are undertaken for what the State conceives to be the public benefit." 293 U.S. at 225. Accord, Allen v. Regents, 304 U.S. 439, 451-453 (1938).
8. That concern was especially weighty in South Carolina because liquor taxes, the object of the dispute in that case, then accounted for over one-fourth of the Federal Government's revenues. See New York v. United States, 326 U.S. 572, 598, n. 4 (1946) (dissenting opinion).
9. Indeed, the "traditional" nature of a particular governmental function can be a matter of historical nearsightedness; today's self-evidently "traditional" function is often yesterday's suspect innovation. Thus, National League of Cities offered the provision of public parks and recreation as an example of a traditional governmental function. 426 U.S. at 851. A scant 80 years earlier, however, in Shoemaker v. United States, 147 U.S. 282 (1893), the Court pointed out that city commons originally had been provided not for recreation, but for grazing domestic animals "in common," and that,
[i]n the memory of men now living, a proposition to take private property [by eminent domain] for a public park . . . would have been regarded as a novel exercise of legislative power.
Id. at 297.
10. For much the same reasons, the existence vel non of a tradition of federal involvement in a particular area does not provide an adequate standard for state immunity. Most of the Federal Government's current regulatory activity originated less than 50 years ago with the New Deal, and a good portion of it has developed within the past two decades. The recent vintage of this regulatory activity does not diminish the strength of the federal interest in applying regulatory standards to state activities, nor does it affect the strength of the States' interest in being free from federal supervision. Although the Court's intergovernmental tax immunity decisions ostensibly have subjected particular state activities to federal taxation because those activities "ha[ve] been traditionally within [federal taxing] power from the beginning," New York v. United States, 326 U.S. at 588 (Stone, C.J., concurring, joined by Reed, Murphy, and Burton, JJ.), the Court has not in fact required federal taxes to have long historical records in order to be effective. The income tax at issue in Powers, supra, took effect less than a decade before the tax years for which it was challenged, while the federal tax whose application was upheld in New York v. United States took effect in 1932 and was rescinded less than two years later. See Helvering v. Powers, 293 U.S. at 222; Rakestraw, The Reciprocal Rule of Governmental Tax Immunity -- A Legal Myth, 11 Fed.Bar J. 3, 34, n. 116 (1950).
11. See, e.g., J. Choper, Judicial Review and the National Political Process 175-184 (1980); Wechsler, The Political Safeguards of Federalism: The Role of the States in the Composition and Selection of the National Government, 54 Colum.L.Rev. 543 (1954); La Pierre, The Political Safeguards of Federalism Redux: Intergovernmental Immunity and the States as Agents of the Nation, 60 Wash.U.L.Q. 779 (1982).
12. See, e.g., A. Howitt, Managing Federalism: Studies in Intergovernmental Relations 3-18 (1984); Break, Fiscal Federalism in the United States: The First 200 Years, Evolution and Outlook, in Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, The Future of Federalism in the 1980s, pp. 39-54 (July 1981).
13. A. Howitt, supra, at 8; Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Federal Expenditures by State for Fiscal Year 1983, p. 2 (1984) (Census, Federal Expenditures); Division of Government Accounts and Reports, Fiscal Service -- Bureau of Government Financial Operations, Dept. of the Treasury, Federal Aid to States: Fiscal Year 1982, p. 1 (1983 rev. ed.).
14. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism 120, 122 (1984).
15. See, e.g., the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 1535, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 2201 et seq.; the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act of 1978, 92 Stat. 3538, 16 U.S.C. § 2501 et seq.; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 27, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq.; the Water Pollution Control Act, 62 Stat. 1155, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.; the Public Health Service Act, 58 Stat. 682, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.; the Safe Drinking Water Act, 88 Stat. 1660, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 30Of et seq.; the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, 82 Stat.197, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 3701 et seq.; the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 633, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 5301 et seq.; and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 1109, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 5601 et seq. See also Census, Federal Expenditures 2-15.
16. See 16 U.S.C. § 824(f); 29 U.S.C. § 152(2); 29 U.S.C. § 402(e); 29 U.S.C. § 652(5); 29 U.S.C. §§ 1003(b)(1), 1002(32); and Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341 (1943).
17. Even as regards the FLSA, Congress incorporated special provisions concerning overtime pay for law enforcement and firefighting personnel when it amended the FLSA in 1974 in order to take account of the special concerns of States and localities with respect to these positions. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(k). Congress also declined to impose any obligations on state and local governments with respect to policymaking personnel who are not subject to civil service laws. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 203(e)(2)(C)(i) and (ii).
18. See, e.g., Choper, supra, at 177-178; Kaden, Politics, Money, and State Sovereignty: The Judicial Role, 79 Colum.L.Rev. 847, 860-868 (1979).
19. See Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1983: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., pt. 4, p. 808 (1982) (fiscal years 1965-1982); Census, Federal Expenditures 15 (fiscal year 1983).
21. Our references to UMTA are not meant to imply that regulation under the Commerce Clause must be accompanied by countervailing financial benefits under the Spending Clause. The application of the FLSA to SAMTA would be constitutional even had Congress not provided federal funding under UMTA.
22. But see United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 86-87 (1978).