What Is the Main Purpose of State Legislatures?

Let’s take a look at the main purpose of State Legislatures, as discussed by experts.

Paul Engel

Paul Engel

Author | Speaker | Founder, The Constitution Study

The state legislatures are the best chance we have save the republic.

From your question, I would infer the viewpoint that with a national legislature the state legislatures are at best redundant and at worst counterproductive. While many in America today look to Washington, D.C. for all of their needs, that is not the legal standing of the federal government.

Federalism vs Federal Supremacy

Federalism – “the distribution of power in an organization (such as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units” — Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The Constitution established a new union of sovereign states and created a central government, what we now call the federal government. The Constitution set the boundaries for that government, establishing a federalist system where powers were specifically distributed between the states and the new United States.

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” – U.S. Constitution, Amendment X

The Constitution establishes a clear boundary between the powers of the states and those of the United States. While that is often ignored today, it is not only the law, it is the supreme law of the land.

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land;” — U.S. Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2

Rather than the federalist system created by Constitution, where power is distributed between the state and federal governments, the traditions of the courts have led to a centralization of power in the federal government, in direct violation of the Constitution that created it. This theory of “federal supremacy”, where the states are mere subdivisions, or worse subjects, of the federal government, has been used to destroy one of the most powerful checks and balances in the American system.

Related: What Is the Purpose of the Constitution?

Checks and Balances

We’ve all be taught in school that our governments have three branches to provide checks against the abuse of power. While this is true, it is only a fraction of the true story. Contrary to the federal supremacist view, the federal government is not supreme over the states because the federal government did not create the states, it is a creation of the states.

First, the states predate the United States.

“That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States;” — Declaration of Independence, July, 1776

The federal government did not exist until the Constitution was drafted, signed (September, 1787), and ratified (June 1788 for the first nine states). And since it took the ratification of the states to form this new government, it’s quite plain that the federal government is a creation of the states, not the other way around as those with a federal supremacist view act.

Furthermore, as the Tenth Amendment states, the federal government legally only has the powers delegated to it by the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment states that powers not delegated to the United States are not delegated to the states, they remain with the states. That means the states had these powers before they were delegated to the United States.

Furthermore, only the states have the power to delegate or remove powers from the United States through the amendment process. Therefore, legally, the states have significantly more power than the United States and its federal government.

Purpose of the State Legislatures

According to the Declaration of Independence, the main purpose of any government is to protect the rights of its citizens.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” — Declaration of Independence

As the creator of the federal government, it is the responsibility of the states to retain control of their creation. Sadly, that duty appears to have been lost to history, but not completely.

The main purpose of the state legislatures is to exercise the legislative power of the people of their state in accordance with a republican form of government. That includes not only legislating domestic issues, but controlling their creation in Washington D.C.

We are seeing evidence of a resurgence of the exercising this legislative power as more and more states pass laws that make it illegal for state agents to assist the federal government in unconstitutional acts and restricting enforcement of federal laws within the state.

In other words, we are seeing states begin to take up their role as a check on the abuses of the federal government, which all starts with a bill in the state’s legislature.

Saving the Republic

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” — Declaration of Independence

The American people, through our states, created the federal government and consented to limited and defined powers for it. Those in the federal government have abused their position, assuming powers not consented to by the people, nor ratified by the states.

It is the right, it is the duty, of the people to alter such a lawless government. The legal way to do that is through both state nullification and choosing a better representative to exercise the powers we have delegated to them at both the state and federal level.

If the American people wish to remain a free republic, then we must not only jealously guard the powers of the state, we must hire representatives who will do so as well. Otherwise, we will no longer be the United States of America, we will become the Subject States of America.

We will cease to be unique states, with our own ideas, preferences, and traditions. We will become a monolithic people, ruled from a distant city, with little if any control over the exercise of our sovereign powers. The issues and concerns of Iowa, West Virginia, Montana, and the rest of the central states will be lost to the hew and cry from the big cities.

In short, we will cease to be a federalist group of republics and we will become the democratic dystopia the Framers of our Constitution warned us about.

“We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy we shall soon shoot into a monarchy or some other form of a dictatorship.)”Alexander Hamilton

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” — Benjamin Franklin

So what is the main purpose of the state legislatures?

First, to exercise the lawmaking power of the people of the state. Second, to help protect the citizens of their state from the encroachment of an out of control federal government.

Alain L. Sanders

Alain Sanders

Associate Professor Emeritus (Department of Political Science), Saint Peter’s University

The basic function of state legislatures, as for any legislature, is to represent citizens on matters of public policy.

In other words, the basic function of legislatures is to provide a direct responsive link between citizens and the workings of government.

Legislatures were the major systemic innovation that revolutionized government, scrapping the theories and principles of top-down monarchial governance, and replacing those concepts with the theories and principles of ground-up citizen-responsive governance.

One can debate how successfully any specific legislature, including any specific state legislature, has implemented or lived up to citizen-responsive governance. But in theory a well-functioning democratically-elected legislature should represent citizens in four basic ways.

Through elections, citizens get to choose who will advocate for and vote for laws they believe are essential for the public good (policy representation). Citizens get to choose who will lobby and press executive agencies to allocate money and resources to meet the collective needs of their specific district or region (allocative representation).

Citizens get to choose who can bring their personal complaints to the attention of executive agencies (constituency service representation). And lastly, citizens get to choose who will embody their values and demographic identity in the public policy arena (symbolic representation).

All of these representative functions link citizens to government, and that is why legislatures exist in every society that claims any modicum of democratic governance, and why they exist in every state of the United States.

Regarding the division of power between state legislatures and the national legislature, the U.S. Constitution strikes a compromise, as it does with all the other power arrangements it delineates.

Between the states and the national government, the constitutional compromise is one that tilts the balance in favor of the federal government on matters of national concern.

The Constitution emerged as a direct result of the political and economic failures of the Articles of Confederation, an extreme state-rights arrangement that paralyzed the country, pitted state against state, and endangered the survival of the country.

Accordingly, the Framers drafted a new arrangement that would create a national government powerful enough to regulate the central elements requisite to develop and maintain a thriving country.

In Article I, section 8, the Framers listed and granted to Congress a set of broadly worded powers that would enable the national legislature to regulate critical areas of national life such as, for example, the national economy in matters of taxes, money, and commerce.

To make sure the national government would be able to fully and broadly exercise its authority, the Framers included a critical clause at the end of Article I, Section 8.

That clause authorizes Congress:

“to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for exercising its powers. Additionally, to make clear the supremacy of national law over state law, on matters where the two might run into conflict, the Framers wrote in Article VI: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof…, shall be the supreme law of the land.”

As the United States economy has grown from a small local farming economy, to a national industrial economy, to an international post-industrial economy, majorities of voters have recognized the rising complexities and problems—social, political, and economic—that have emerged from these changes and mushroomed to national proportions.

Accordingly, in numerous national elections over the decades, voters have urged at critical times that the national government devote national attention, distribute national resources, and devise national solutions to these complexities and problems.

The national government has often heeded the voters and stepped in. It has done so because there is no language in the Constitution that limits the concepts, purposes, effects, and consequences of taxes, money, and commerce—and the power granted to Congress to regulate these broad subjects—to the limited understandings that these words held in the small farming world of the 18th century.

The early decisions of the Supreme Court, authored by the generation of jurists closest to the Framers, recognized and declared that the words and power relationships the Constitution established should be flexible and adaptable, not only to meet the needs of the Framers’ era but also and more importantly, to meet the needs of future generations of Americans.

In his landmark 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote for the Court that the:

“Constitution [is] intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

Justice Joseph Story similarly expressed this view when, in the 1816 case of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, he wrote for the Court:

“The Constitution unavoidably deals in general language….The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years, but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence.”

Additionally, and very importantly, the Supreme Court also articulated from the outset the general parameters of these broad national powers as against the powers of the states. Those general constitutional parameters have continued to operate to this day.

In the words of Chief Justice Marshall, in the 1824 case of Gibbons v. Ogden, the Court declared:

“If Congress has the power to regulate it, that power must be exercised whenever the subject exists. If it exists within the states…, then the power of Congress may be exercised within a state.”

Accordingly the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states the powers “not delegated” to the federal government, leaves the powers of the states intact—except where the Constitution explicitly limits those state powers, or where the Constitution, by the broad powers granted to the national government, authorizes the national government to exercise its powers across states and within states.

Federalism, as delineated in the Constitution and upheld by the U.S. Supreme through the centuries, exists and endures. But it is an arrangement that tilts power in favor of the national government.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some recent trends or issues facing state legislatures today?

Current trends and issues facing state legislatures include debates over voting rights, redistricting, and regulation of social media and technology companies.

Voting rights have been a hotly debated topic in many states. Some states have passed laws restricting access to the right to vote, while others have passed laws expanding the right to vote.

Redistricting has also been a contentious issue, with some states accused of gerrymandering in favor of one political party.

Regulation of social media and technology companies is also a recent trend in state legislatures, with some states passing laws limiting these companies’ power and influence. Other issues facing state legislatures include health care, education, and criminal justice reform.

As these issues evolve, state legislatures will play a critical role in shaping the future of their states and the country as a whole.

How do state legislatures address issues related to voting rights issues, and what are recent trends in voting rights policy at the state level?

State legislatures play a critical role in shaping voting rights policy, setting rules for voter registration, polling places, and ballot access, among other things. State policies can significantly impact voter turnout and all residents’ ability to participate in the democratic process.

Recent trends in voting rights policy at the state level include a focus on expanding access to the polls, protecting the right to vote for underrepresented communities, and modernizing voting infrastructure.

Some states have taken steps to expand early voting, same-day voter registration, and mail-in voting, while others have implemented automatic voter registration programs to increase voter participation.

State legislatures have also focused on addressing issues related to voter suppression, including voter ID, voter purges, and early voting restrictions.

Some states have enacted legislation to limit the impact of these measures, such as implementing same-day voter registration or creating a process to restore voting rights to individuals convicted of felonies.

In addition to passing laws related to voting rights, state legislatures also play a role in overseeing the administration of elections in their state. This may include conducting oversight hearings, investigating fraud or misconduct, and providing funding for election infrastructure and cybersecurity.

Can citizens participate in the legislative process, and if so, how?

Citizens can participate in the legislative process in several ways. One of the most effective ways is to contact their elected representatives directly. Citizens can call, email or write their senator or representative to express their opinion on a particular issue or bill.

Another way to get involved is to attend public hearings or committee meetings. These meetings are open to the public and provide an opportunity for citizens to hear the discussion and debate surrounding a particular issue.

Citizens also have the opportunity to testify at these meetings and provide their own input on a particular bill or issue.

Finally, citizens can participate in the legislative process by staying informed about the issues and bills being considered by their state’s Legislature.

This may mean following news coverage of the legislative session, attending town hall meetings, and reading legislative updates and reports. By staying informed and engaged, citizens can help ensure that their voice is heard in the legislative process.

Can state legislatures impeach governors and other state officials, and if so, how does the process work?

State legislatures have the power to impeach governors and other state officials accused of wrongdoing or misconduct. The process for impeachment varies from state to state but generally involves a series of steps.

The first step in the impeachment process is usually an investigation, either by a legislative committee or a special prosecutor. The investigation may include hearings, interviews, and the collection of evidence.

If the investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, the Legislature may vote to bring articles of impeachment against the official. Articles of impeachment specify the charges against the official, similar to an indictment in a criminal trial.

The official must then stand trial before the Legislature. The proceedings may be conducted by the full House or Senate or by a special committee. The official has the opportunity to present a defense and call witnesses.

If the official is found guilty, the Legislature may vote to remove them from office. In some states, the public official may also be disqualified from holding public office in the future.

Impeachment is a serious and consequential process used to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. Although rare, it’s an important tool for maintaining the integrity of state government and ensuring that elected officials uphold a high standard of conduct.

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