Book Review, The US Supreme Court and the Centralization of Federal Authority, by Michael A. Dichio


Does the U.S. Supreme Court protect the states from the expansion of federal authority? In this important new book, political scientist Michael Dichio argues that the answer is “no.” To the contrary, he contends that, throughout American history, “the Court …. has persistently acted as an important instrument of the broader central state, expanding federal authority over society.” The theory that the Supreme Court expands federal power at the expense of the states is not a new idea, having been first raised by anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution over 200 years ago. But Dichio provides the most thorough and wide-ranging defense of it to date, drawing on an extensive database of notable Supreme Court decisions from 1789 through 1997. Among other things, he shows that the Court constrained the states in important ways even in historical periods that are often thought of as high points for “states’ rights,” such as the Jacksonian era and the late nineteenth century. 

Dichio’s analysis is, in many ways, compelling, and is a major contribution to the literature on federalism and judicial review. But some of his methodological choices overstate the centralizing tendencies of the Supreme Court. He also unduly downplays some key ways in which the Court promotes decentralization of power. While the Supreme Court has never been a consistent ally of state governments seeking to limit federal authority, it is also not quite as consistent a centralizing force as Dichio suggests.