Current Issue

Volume 86, Number 3

June 2011

State Enforcement of Federal Law

Margaret H. Lemos

Federal law is enforced through a combination of public and private efforts. Commentary
on the choice between public and private enforcement has generated a
remarkably stable set of arguments about the strengths and weaknesses of each
type. But the conventional wisdom tells only part of the story, as it ignores variations
within the category of public enforcement. Many federal statutes authorize
civil enforcement by both a federal agency and the states. State enforcement is different
from federal enforcement in several important respects, representing a unique
model of public enforcement. The authority to enforce federal law is also a unique
form of state power. As I show, enforcement authority can serve as a potent means
of state influence by enabling states to adjust the intensity of enforcement and to
press their own interpretations of federal law. To date, enforcement has been
neglected in the federalism literature, which tends to equate state power with state
regulation. But enforcement authority may exist outside of regulatory authority,
allowing states to operate even in areas where state law is preempted or state regulators
have chosen not to act. And enforcement empowers a distinct breed of state
representatives—elected, generalist attorneys general. Just as state attorneys general
differ from federal agencies as agents of enforcement, they differ from state agencies
as agents of federal-state interaction. Moreover, attorneys general in most states
are independent from the state legislature and governor, and may represent different
constituencies. Enforcement authority therefore opens up new outlets for
state-centered policy, empowering actors whose interests and incentives distinguish
them from the state institutions that dominate other channels of federal-state