In summary

The U.S. Supreme Court, in overturning a federal law prohibiting sports wagering, bolstered the states’ rights doctrine and in doing so, may help California in its battles with the Trump administration over tailpipe emissions and other issues.

When the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a federal law prohibiting states from legalizing gambling on sports, it elated pro-gambling interests and ignited a storm of media speculation about potential impacts on amateur and professional athletics.

However, the decision, authored by the court’s most conservative member, Samuel Alito Jr., and supported in whole or part by six other justices, could have a much broader effect by bolstering the “anti-commandeering” doctrine contained in the Constitution’s 10th amendment, to wit:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

That’s the provision on which California – and some other blue states – have been relying as they do battle with the Trump administration on a wide variety of issues, from immigration to climate change.

The case before the court was whether New Jersey, by authorizing sports wagering, was violating a 1992 federal anti-gambling law.

“The legislative powers granted to Congress are sizable, but they are not unlimited,” Alito wrote. “The Constitution confers on Congress not plenary legislative power but only certain enumerated powers. Therefore, all other legislative power is reserved for the states, as the 10th Amendment confirms. And conspicuously absent from the list of powers given to Congress is the power to issue direct orders to the governments of the states. The anti-commandeering doctrine simply represents the recognition of this limit on congressional authority.”

“It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals,” Alito added, “A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”

By happenstance, the decision was rendered just as California’s battle with the Trump administration over auto tailpipe emissions was heating up.

During the Obama presidency, the auto industry agreed to an increase in auto fuel efficiency standards, creating a 50-state rule that included California, which had previously gone its own way.

When Trump became president, automakers sought some relief from the rules, saying they were too strict in light of consumer preferences for larger, less efficient vehicles and he agreed to revise them.

That touched off opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown and other California officials, who pledged not to change, and said California would exercise its right to have emission standards that differed from those in other states, if need be.

It was clearly an effort to force industry executives to back down, because they admittedly didn’t want to have different rules in different states. And in response, Trump officials began hinting that they would withdraw California’s ability to go its own way. Rhetorical exchanges and private meetings have ensued.

Now that the Supreme Court has shored up the 10th amendment and states’ rights, the question is whether the administration, even with the support of Congress, could prevent California from adopting its own emission standards any more than it could order states not to legalize sports wagering.

If it cannot, Brown and the California Legislature could then make good on their threat to go it alone and thus force automakers to either back off their demands for looser standards or face having California and other states impose a wide variety of rules, creating a manufacturing and marketing nightmare.

And that’s the Supreme Court decision’s potential impact on just one of many conflicts between California and Washington.


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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...