Q. 42: Under Our Constitution, Some Powers Belong to the States. What Is One Power of the States?

Map of the United States
Providing police protection is one of the powers of the states.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?

Acceptable Answers:

  • provide protection (police)
  • provide safety (fire departments)
  • give a driver’s license
  • approve zoning and land use

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

Providing Police Protection

State governments and state government budgets provide police protection in the United States. States have a responsibility to maintain law and order for the health and welfare of the people. 

While police powers can be challenged in state and federal courts and may be deemed unconstitutional, they must have the authority to use physical force against people in certain situations. However, they are obliged to uphold citizens’ constitutional rights. 

Nineteenth-century legislation gives the states the authority over their police forces. They are mainly free to pass laws in state legislatures without federal government approval. The federal government only intervenes when a law directly conflicts with federal law or the constitution. 

Providing Safety

Fire departments are also formed and controlled by the state governments, not the federal government. The constitution doesn’t mention fire protection. Therefore, according to the Tenth Amendment, it must be the responsibility of state governments. 

State governments use their budgets to build fire stations, purchase fire trucks, and source other fire fighting equipment. They also allocate funding to train and test firefighters and pay their salaries and benefits. 

Giving People Driver’s Licenses

States are responsible for granting their residents driver’s licenses, which means the rules differ somewhat in each state. For example, a state government might require you to renew your license only once every ten years but stipulate that you do it in person. A different state might require you to renew it once every four years but let you do it online. 

Controlling Land Use

Under the Tenth Amendment, dividing land into zones and restricting what can be developed or done in each area is up to the states. State zoning laws go as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Zoning laws were initially discriminatory, and in some cases may still be. 

Initially, zoning laws prevented African Americans from moving into specific areas. Such discriminatory laws no longer stand, but zoning laws can still disadvantage poor or average income citizens. Zoning laws can require only single-family detached homes to be built, keeping people with less money out of an area. 

Providing Schooling and Education

State governments also build and administer schools, not the federal government. The federal government has a limited role in this process today and played no part before the 1960s. 

State governments fund the construction of schools and teacher salaries. They decide what textbooks are used, how schools are administered, and what is required for a student to graduate. Local governments also have some power over how students are educated. 

The separation of government powers into different branches (legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch) and local/state/federal governments is important for American Democracy. From a local government to the federal government, each plays a vital role. 

What Powers Belong to the States?

Because of the Tenth Amendment, the federal government’s powers are limited to what the constitution gives. Unless the constitution specifically says that the federal government has a certain power, the power belongs to the states or the people. Local governments, state governments, and the federal government have different powers. 

Despite the limitations on federal power, the federal government often has authority over state governments. The Supreme Court can strike down either state or federal laws as unconstitutional. For example, the Supreme Court struck down many early laws about working hours/conditions as against employees’ right to choose to work long hours. 

Limitations on States’ Power

While the constitution does not restrict states’ power as strongly as the Ninth Amendment restricts the federal government, there are still restrictions. A state government cannot pass an unconstitutional law or a federal law mentioned in the constitution. All states must be republics – a state could not legally declare itself a monarchy. 

The federal government is also superior to all state governments. While the constitution limits the federal government to a fairly narrow range of powers, the federal government still has supremacy. A state also cannot legally split itself into two states.

Some other things states are not allowed to do are:

  • Enter an alliance, treaty, or confederation.
  • Restrict and tax-free trade without the approval of the federal government.
  • Grant a title of nobility.
  • Create any laws against the United States code, the congressional public laws, or the constitution. 

Other State Responsibilities

States cannot rely on the federal government and must do many things themselves. The states’ responsibilities include:

  • Education.
  • Protecting people from threats from within their areas.
  • Creating/maintaining courts, police, and prisons.
  • Regulating industry and businesses.
  • Raising tax money to pay for the state government.
  • Building state highways and state public works projects.
  • Setting up local/county/municipal governments.

States Governments Have Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

Like the federal government, state governments are split into three branches. A state government usually mirrors the United States government, though there are differences between each one. Each state has a state constitution, and state constitutions are often much longer than the United States Constitution.

State governors have powers similar to presidents, there are state supreme courts, and almost all states split the legislature into two houses. All states have the right to decide how they organize their governments and could choose to be very different from the federal government. States comprise counties, which are divided into municipalities with local governments. 

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments

The Ninth Amendment states that people might have rights that are not explicitly mentioned in the constitution. The Founding Fathers believed that any list of rights could easily be incomplete and that creating a list of rights would take away any right that it failed to include. For this reason, they created the Ninth Amendment to state that there may be unwritten rights that are not mentioned in the constitution but are still legal rights for all citizens. 

The Tenth Amendment allows the Supreme Court to remove federal government powers that are not given to the federal government under the constitution. Sometimes, a bill passes that gives the federal government a controversial new power. This can lead to a Tenth Amendment case about whether the bill is unconstitutional. 

Because of the Tenth Amendment, things like police protection are state powers. The constitution does not mention anything about the federal government providing police protection. Therefore, these powers belong to the states or the people. 

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