Rethinking the Supreme Court’s Impact on American Federalism and Centralization

Michael Dichio, University of Utah, Department of Political Science
Ilya Somin, George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School


This article challenges the conventional wisdom about of the Supreme Court’s impact on federalism and centralization. In particular, we argue that the centralization impact of the Court is far less pronounced if decisions that uphold federal and state/local laws against challenge are classified as neutral rather than as centralizing and decentralizing, respectively. This reclassification dramatically alters our understanding of the Court’s role in establishing federal–state boundaries of power. After presenting our theoretical arguments, we briefly discuss the potential empirical effects of these revisions. Our analysis calls into question the traditional picture of the Court as a consistent force for centralization. It also challenges the conventional wisdom about the Court’s impact on centralization during specific key periods of American history.