Majority on High Court Champion States' Rights

WASHINGTON -- As the Supreme Court has struggled over the past two centuries to find the proper balance between federal and state powers, it has shored up the national government at the expense of the states.

Today's court is reversing that trend.

And for the singular group of five justices who have taken control, the effort has been long in the making and is likely to endure while the five are in place.

Led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the justices have individually and passionately been working to curtail the powers of Congress and enhance that of the states. Their voices, once heard only in dissents or in speeches and law reviews, now have the weight of a majority on the highest court in the land.

A major ruling Wednesday, in a dispute over Indian gambling, significantly reduced the power of Congress to subject states to lawsuits for their failure to enforce federal rights. Last term, the same five justices cut short Congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, a federal power that has driven nearly limitless federal involvement at the local level. Some of these five have served notice that they want to further diminish federal regulation of the states.

What makes the rulings of greater moment is that they mirror the trend in the Republican-majority Congress to shift social policy programs from Washington to the states. Like the new legislative regime, the Rehnquist majority believes Congresses of the past were intrusive, coercive and exercised control beyond the terms of the Constitution.

"Something very large is at work,'' said Yale University law professor Paul D. Gewirtz. "What we're seeing from the judicial branch is an across-the-board restriction on national government power on every front and a bolstering of state sovereignty.'' The consensus in the wake of recent decisions is that the Rehnquist court wants the federal government to start leaving the states alone.