United States Government/Federalism and State Authority

Federalism and State AuthorityEdit

The United States, with a few exceptions such as Canada and Austria, is unique in its anti-federalist system, where sovereign governments share certain powers. As you may recall in the study of the Articles of Confederation as well as the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, the argument concerning the power of the federal government versus that of the states was a hot issue. In fact, the debate continued for many decades after the Constitution went into effect, leading to the Civil War, which ultimately settled the supremacy of the federal government over the states. Even so, the debate continues to one extent or another over where the boundaries between federal prerogative and states' rights should be drawn.

What is Federalism?Edit

Federalism, as stated before, is a sharing of power between sovereign governments. The federal government has specific powers laid out in the Constitution. And while the Tenth Amendment reserves any power "to the States respectively, or to the people" any powers not expressly granted to the federal government by the Constitution, Article IV details the relationship of the states with the federal government, as well as limits on the states.

  • "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof." (Section 1) In other words, documents such as driver's licenses and marriage certificates are recognized across state lines, and court rulings in one state still apply in other states. This is known as the "full faith and credit clause."
  • "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States." (Section 2, Clause 1) This has been the source of differing interpretations, with one side purporting the idea that this clause requires the federal government to treat all citizens equally, while the other side contends that the rights afforded on a person's home state will be carried over into another state. The Supreme Court has upheld the meaning as disallowing states from discriminating against citizens of another state over its own citizens.
  • "A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime." (Section 2, Clause 2) If a governor of one state requests a fugitive who has crossed into another state to be returned to his or her home state (extradition), then the governor of the other state must do so. The Supreme Court has ruled that federal courts may compel governors to surrender fugitives (writs of mandamus).
  • "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." (Section 2, Clause 3) Called the Fugitive Slave Clause, this portion of the Constitution is no longer valid -- it was repealed following the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. However, when it was in effect, it allowed for the extradition of runaway slaves returned on the claims of their enslavers.
  • "New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress." (Section 3, Clause 1) This simply states that Congress may admit new states into the United States. It forbade the creation of new states from portions of current states or portions of two states combined unless the legislatures of the concerned state or states, as well as Congress, agreed. There was (and still is, nominally) debate about how the State of West Virginia came about, since it was carved out of a portion of the State of Virginia by Union sympathizers during the Civil War, and yet done so without the consent of the Virginia legislature.
  • "The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State." (Section 3, Clause 2) Essentially, all federal territories are areas belonging to but not a part of the United States. In the past, such areas included the Louisiana Territory, the Oregon Territory, and Alaska before statehood. Examples today include Puerto Rico and Guam, which are not states but are U.S. territories. The U.S. Congress has final power over U.S. territory and has the power to determine which portions of the Constitution apply in the territories.
  • "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence." (Section 4) Self-explanatory; each state in the U.S. will have a republican form of government. And they do. State governments run parallel to the federal government, with three branches of government. State governments are very similar to each other and to the federal government. This will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter. The federal government also has a responsibility to protect states from invasion or attack.

How State Governments WorkEdit

As was mentioned earlier, state governments are very similar to the structure of the federal government, with three branches (legislative, executive, judicial). Each state has its own constitution, but the specifics of the laws, regulations, and the system itself differs from state to state. In this respect, states are not mere subordinate provinces of Washington, DC, but sovereign states in Union with each other. State governments are thus very powerful compared to their counterparts in most other countries. However, the U.S. Constitution remains the ultimate authority as supreme law of the land.



The executive branch of government in each of the states is headed by the governor, who is elected by the citizens of each state and not subordinate to federal authority. As such, the governor is head of government, head of state, and commander-in-chief of the state's military forces (the National Guard). The process for the election of the governor, the extent of his or her power, and the limitations on the governor's term of service are different for each state, according to each state's constitution.

Lieutenant governors are often elected on the same ticket as the governor. However, in 18 states, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and it is possible (and often the case) for governors and lieutenant governors to be of different political parties. 42 of the 50 states and all five U.S. territories have lieutenant governors. Lieutenant governors are essentially "second in command" to the governor, and have many roles similar to that of the vice president of the United States. If a governor is out of the state or dies or becomes incapacitated, the lieutenant governor takes over as governor (though, in some states, the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor until an election is held). The lieutenant governor is often the presiding officer of the upper house of the state legislature (similar to the vice president's role as president of the U.S. Senate), and in some states the lieutenant governor is equivalent to a secretary of state position in other states.

Departments and OfficesEdit

Unlike the federal government, most states have plural executives, in which key members of the executive are elected by the people. This is not true across the nation, however, and varies greatly by state, with some such positions done by election and some by appointment. In some states, all or several of these positions may be constitutionally-created, while in other states, some or all of these positions are appointed by the governor, legislature, or judiciary. These posts include (but are certainly not limited to) secretaries of state, attorney generals, and state auditors.

Secretaries of State are probably most known for their duties as the chief election officials of their respective states. The secretary of state is usually in the line of succession for the governorship, usually after the lieutenant governor. In states which do not have a lieutenant governor, the secretary of state is next in the line of succession for the governorship. In states which do not have a secretary of state, the duties often fall upon the lieutenant governor. Common duties amongst secretaries of state throughout the United States include administration of the Uniform Commercial Code (law which ensures uniformity in business contracts and practices across the United States), record keeping, administration of notaries public, and keepers of the states' seal. In Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, this position is called "Secretary of the Commonwealth."

State attornies general are chief legal advisors to the state government and chief law enforcement officers of the state. In some states, they head a state department of justice, similar to that of the U.S. Department of Justice.

State auditors may also be known as state comptrollers or state controllers.

Several state departments exist similar to the president's cabinet at the federal level. These departments administer the state's bureaucracy, and may variously be known as departments, agencies, or commissions, dependant on state. One well-known bureaucratic agency in which people deal with regularly is the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is the agency which issues driver's licenses and registration. In some states, the function is handled by an actual Department of Motor Vehicles (or similar agency with a different name), while in other states it is handled by subdivisions of the state's transportation department. In Hawaii, this function is done at the county level. Some other agencies which you (the reader) may be familiar with include Fish & Game, Forestry, or Transportation.

Law EnforcementEdit

State MarshallEdit
State Police/State Trooper/Highway PatrolEdit
Forest/Park RangerEdit

State AssemblyEdit

State JudiciaryEdit

County GovernmentEdit

The county is the level of administration subordinate to the state. Counties exist as political divisions in 48 of the 50 states. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, counties represent little more than geographical divisions -- lines on the map. In Alaska, counties are known as boroughs, and in Louisiana, they are called parishes. County governments range in power from state to state, from non-existent (as is the case in Connecticut and Rhode Island), to weak (most parts of New England) to having a wide range of power within their specific county or jurisdiction.


The administrative center of a county is known as the county seat. It is almost analogous to the "capital city" for the county. Counties are often governed by a board of supervisors or county commission (as with most everything discussed thusfar in this section, there are great variations across state lines and, in some cases, even county lines), which are elected by the people in the county. These boards or commissions have executive, legislative, and judicial power within their jurisdictions; the power to enact county ordinances, the power to enforce said ordinances, and even certain limited appellate powers relating to county administration and decisions made by commissions underneath the board, especially relating to planning.

Day-to-day operations are often overseen by a county manager. A county clerk, registrar, or recorder is responsible for records such as corporate charters, marriage licenses, judgements, elections, and voter registration. In addition, in most counties, the local trial courts are located at the county seat.

Services and ScopeEdit

As was mentioned above, the scope of each county's authority in administrating its jurisdiction varies greatly across the country. In New England, this scope is minimal -- non-existent in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of Massachusetts, where the ability to tax and issue permits lies with municipal governments. In other parts of New England, counties function as part of a sheriff's jurisdiction (see below).

In most counties outside of New England, counties typically provide courts, public utilities, libraries, hospitals, public health, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails. Other key county officials include the coroner/medical examiner, treasurer, assessor, auditor, controller, and district attorney.

The SheriffEdit

The duties and responsibilities of sheriffs vary greatly across state and county lines. A sheriff is generally the highest law-enforcement official for the county, and is often elected by the people of the county, a unique characteristic of United States politics. In the South, the election for sheriff may be seen as the most important position in county politics.

The sheriff's office uses sworn officers called sheriff's deputies to execute the law enforcement responsibilities of his or her office. Again, these duties vary greatly between states, with commensurate duties going to state police in some states. Of the 3,141 counties in the United States, only 80 have an actual "county police department." The sheriff's department usually performs the duties of "county police."


Though rare, counties may impose a sales tax on goods and services purchased in a county. Most revenue for the county comes in the way of property taxes (such as on a home or place of business), user fees (such as those for parks), and other fees or fines (traffic violations, parking meters, etc.). These funds are used to provide county services, such as law enforcement, schools, or snow removal.


Municipalities are levels of government below the county level. Different sorts of municipalities include villages, towns or townships, and cities. These are incorporated by state charter. Any area not incorporated into a municipality is considered to be an unincorporated area, and is directly administered by the county.


Law EnforcementEdit



Other Governmental Authorities Within A StateEdit

Indian/Tribal GovernmentEdit