I've run across the phrase "Congress having occupied the field" in legal writings recently. Can someone explain this?

My question relates to The Common Law Right of Access to Public Records. Since Congress passed FOIA and exempted itself, does this phrase apply to the records of the Capitol Police actions on January 6th?

2 Answers 2


There are a number of areas in which the US states can pass laws only to the extend that they do not conflict with Federal laws passed by Congress. When a federal law clearly says that states may not pass laws on a given subject, the issue is clear. When it specifically invites state laws, the issue is also clear. But when a Federal law imposes certain regulations in a given area, it may not be clear if a state may go beyond the Federal requirements. Sometimes it can. For example, there is a Federal Minimum Wage. But states are free to impose higher minimum wage levels, and some have done so.

So when a court decision or legal article says "Congress having occupied the field" it means that a set of Federal laws is intended to be a compelte regulation of a given area, and states may not add additional regulations of their own in that area.

I am not sure what rules apply to disclosure of information by the Capitol police.

  • Thank you David. You may want to see my related question at politics.stackexchange.com/questions/66665/… Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 20:22
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    Isn't the phrase also sometimes used in cases of dispute between Congress and the executive? I.E. that there is no longer room for executive discretion because Congress (along with a past or current President) has spoken to the subject? Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 18:37

"Occupying the field" refers to a situation in where federal regulation of a matter is "so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it.” Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947). In other words, if the federal government has so comprehensively regulated an industry or product or activity, the states may not impose their own regulations.

That concept would not apply to the records of the Capitol Police, for a few reasons. First, I don't know of any state laws that purport to govern access to records held by the Capitol Police. Even if such a law did exist, FOIA would not "occupy the field," as it governs only records held by certain components of the executive department, 5 U.S.C. 552(f) .

The common-law right of access would likely not apply, as it is rarely applied to anything other than records held by the judiciary.

  • Of course, the other problem that a state law attempting to govern Capitol Police records would be that no state actually has any jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, let alone the Capitol, and, thus, no state has jurisdiction over the Capitol Police.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 20:04

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