More From Rob Natelson on Limits to Federal Power Over State Law



Over the course of the year, I’ve quoted constitutional scholar Rob Natelson of the Tea Party-side Independence Institute numerous times, for his clear writings condemning a federal bill to limit damages awarded in medical malpractice and other health care-related lawsuits. He continues to analyze the original writings of the Founding Fathers to determine their intentions for the scope and shape of the powers enumerated to the federal government in the Constitution.

Writing recently on the pages of the Tenth Amendment Center, Natelson wrote an article titled, “The Greatly Misunderstood Chief Justice John Marshall.” In it he discussed the twisting of Marshall’s legacy by historians to justify judicial activism. Included in the discussion is an analysis of Marshall’s rulings in key cases such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the case often cited for an expansive view of the Commerce Clause by proponents of both ObamaCare and a federal tort reform bill to override state court systems. Natelson describes the actual intention of Marshall’s rulings in those two cases:

Marshall’s treatment of the Necessary and Proper Clause in McCulloch v. Maryland is widely misunderstood by people who (A) don’t know the law of the time, (B) haven’t read the entire opinion, and/or © don’t know that two of the words Marshall used–“convenient” and “appropriate”– had narrower meanings in his time than they have today. Marshall himself explained the decision in a subsequent series of op-eds, where he acknowledged that the Necessary and Proper Clause is not a grant of power at all, but an interpretive guide.

Gibbons v. Odgen is often appealed to, as Justice Jackson did, for a very broad reading of the “commerce” component of the Necessary and Proper Clause. Under this reading, the Necessary and Proper Clause allows Congress to regulate any economic activity “substantially affecting” interstate commerce: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, heath care, insurance, medical marijuana–in fact, the entire economy.

However, Gibbons did not even mention the Necessary and Proper Clause. The primary holding of Gibbons was that navigation was within the prevailing legal definition of “commerce” for constitutional purposes–a decision that, under the original understanding of the Constitution, was clearly correct. Some of the Court’s dicta (extraneous language) added that in some circumstances commerce (including navigation) within state boundaries might be so tied up with interstate commerce that Congress could regulate it as well. But when Marshall addressed other aspects of the economy, it was to say that they were outside of Congress’s power. He specifically mentioned “health laws of every description” as being reserved exclusively to the states.

So those who use Gibbons to argue for the constitutionality of federal control of manufacturing, agriculture, land use, or health care are twisting some of Marshall’s words and omitting others.

In other words, the pro-ObamaCare forces and the pro-tort reform causes make the same error for the same reasons. In both cases, the result of victory in each case would be the exercise of excessive federal power, to the detriment of individual rights and the rights of individual states to regulate and manage the daily activities of the citizenry.

Americans are fortunate to have someone like Rob Natelson who has the ability and time to dig into the details of the foundational documents of our nation and educate us on the limits on federal power as intended by the Founders.