In United States, individual states are considered sovereign. Meaning they can create their own laws to govern their own people. Federal government makes laws that control the interaction between states, and insures that constitution is upheld.

To enforce compliance with federal programs, congress uses the the spending clause to limit the amount of federally available funds to a given state.

Besides cutting the funding, can the federal government do anything to a state, when the state creates internal rules(not conflicting with the constitution) that are contrary to federal government's ideas?

  • I think that your second paragraph should begin "to enforce compliance with..." or something like that, but I'm not sufficiently certain of your meaning to edit the question myself.
    – phoog
    Oct 1, 2018 at 18:50
  • With respect to whether something is legal, it is illegal if either the state or the federal government makes it illegal. The absence of a law criminalizing the pointing of a laser pointer at an aircraft in any state does not mean that doing so is legal in that state.
    – phoog
    Oct 1, 2018 at 18:58

3 Answers 3


The state can decriminalize all drugs under state law, no problem. They merely have to repeal their version of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and all related legislation. However, the federal drug statutes, contained in 21 U.S.C. 13, still apply because of the principle of dual sovereignty (if a state tried to explicitly overrule them, the Supremacy Clause would come into play). Let's take a look at some of the statutes under Title 21, Chapter 13, of the U.S. Code.

Section 801 of that chapter described Congress's findings in enacting the Controlled Substances Act. §801(3) through (6) provide the basis for federal authority to regulate intrastate affairs with respect to drug trafficking and possession. The section claims that intrastate drugs "contribute to swelling the interstate traffic," and concludes that "federal control of the intrastate incidents of the traffic in controlled substances is essential to the effective control of the interstate incidents of such traffic." Thus, the federal government will continue to enforce the federal controlled substances laws regardless of state legalization. A notable exception is the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bans DOJ from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana programs legal under state law.

However, the federal government isn't always successful in (and doesn't always attempt) regulating intrastate behaviors using its interstate commerce authority. For example, the original Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (since amended and complemented by a 1994 law using the condition-of-funding approach), was struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995). The law, banning possession of handguns near schools, was found to be an overreach of the Commerce Clause authority. But it was amended by adding the additional interstate nexus of the gun having been moved interstate, which was a very minor limitation in practice. Since it only exempts individuals with a license issued by the state where the school is, it has significantly limited the ability of states to pass "constitutional carry" laws and allow for CCP reciprocity, because many highways and homes fall within its reach.

So, if a state is willing to lose all of its federal funding, then Congress can't ever force it to create, maintain, or enforce a state law. But in many ways, the federal government can still enforce its will through criminal law on a number of intrastate activities.


Well, this is kind of the $64,000 question of American Politics. Per the 9th Amendment of the Constitution, the body of rights afforded to the people is not limited to those listed in the bill of rights, and per the 10th Amendment, the Federal Government cannot claim powers that are not expressly given to it in the Constitution, and any power is either the states (unless expressly restricted power to the state) or the peoples.

That would seem simple, but the Interstate Commerce Clause has been used to coerce compliance. This is seen in the Interstate Funding legislation often... the Interstate Roads are federally funded, but those funds are given to the states to maintain the roads... so Texas is paid by D.C. to maintain the interstates within Texas. There have been numerous rules attached, such as 21 being the legal drinking age, that were enacted such that states with lower ages wouldn't be funded... Even though Congress can't legally mandate a drinking age, it can say we won't spend money on states that don't mandate it... and then the states all passed laws.

That said, a SCOTUS decision did say that the Feds can only do this if the restriction is related to the funds being distributed.

Typically, almost any crime you committ can be tried twice (once by the state, and once by the feds). Ordinarily, the Feds do not try the case if the states trial happens and the outcome is sufficient... but from time to time they get involved. The current Recreational Marijuana issues have not been pursued because the DOJ has better things to do, but they can if they want to.

Generally, when this occurs, the Federal Government will sue the state (or the reverse... maybe... depends on why) and if particularly bad it could go up to the Supreme Court. The latest threat of this is the US government threatening suit against California over the state's Net Neutrality law, which the U.S. is likely asserting is illegal because it affects interstate commerce and since the bulk of tech firms are in California, this would essentially be California making law for the entire country.

TL;DR: The options used are generally a lawsuit or taking money that they would give related to that matter away from the states. There is a general presumption that Federal Law will trump state law if both are capable of making laws in the same area, though often the Feds will not persue a federal crime if a state crime is equally satisfying.

  • 1
    Congress also funds things under the General Welfare clause, and can put restrictions on things done with Federal funds. This is how the Feds influence public education: that isn't interstate, but they can allocate money by the General Welfare clause. Oct 1, 2018 at 16:41
  • Would Real ID count as an instance where the coercion was not directly monetary? In that case, rather than reduction of funding, the stick is curtailing residents' ability to use their state-issued drivers' licenses or identification cards to pass through airport security or to gain access to certain federal facilities.
    – phoog
    Oct 1, 2018 at 18:53
  • @phoog: All Federal Facilities. One of the hallmarks pointed out here is you can just walk into congress and wait in a congress person's office until he or she can see you (Hint: It's best to try YOUR congress folks). Anyway, there are a few challenges on the matter but I don't know how much up the chain it has gone.
    – hszmv
    Oct 1, 2018 at 19:54
  • No, not all federal facilities require identification to enter, and the law does not restrict people's ability to enter those that do not.
    – phoog
    Oct 1, 2018 at 20:20
  • 18 USC 7(3) also gives the federal government control over many of its own facilities through special territorial jurisdiction.
    – Aidan
    Oct 1, 2018 at 21:23

It is incorrect to say that "[US States] can create their own laws to govern their own people. Federal government makes laws that control the interaction between states, and insures that constitution is upheld."

In addition to US federal control over interstate commerce (which courts have interpreted quite broadly) there are other sources of authority in the US Federal Constitution which allow the US Federal government to pass and enforce laws that directly make individuals liable for intrastate activity. For example, the constitution grants Federal power "to coin money" and "to emit bills of credit", and thus Federal statutes define and punish counterfeiting, and no state laws are needed to do so.

Similarly the assessment and collections of customs and federal taxes is a direct federal function, with no state laws needed, even though this acts directly on individuals in the various states.

The federal government has passed many laws regulating banking, stock, and other financial institutions. These again are enforced directly on individuals and firms, without any state law being required. There are many other similar forms of direct federal regulation.

States generally may not pass laws which relieve individuals within the state of obligations under federal law (unless the federal law so provides, which some do). States may not obstruct the enforcement of federal law, but are not required to assist in such enforcement. If a state tried to do so, a federal injunction might be issued, prohibiting such actions. This device was sometimes used when stated attempted to obstruct the enforcement of federal civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s for example. Exactly what constitutes "obstruction" in specific circumstances is a point debated in court cases.

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