Why Enumeration Matters

49 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2014 Last revised: 6 Jul 2016

See all articles by Richard Primus

Richard Primus

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: March 25, 2015


The maxim that the federal government is a government of enumerated powers can be understood as a “continuity tender”: not a principle with practical consequences for governance, but a ritual statement with which practitioners identify themselves with a history from which they descend. This interpretation makes sense of the longstanding paradox whereby courts recite the enumeration principle but give it virtually no practical effect. On this understanding, the enumerated-powers maxim is analogous to the clause that Parliament still uses to open enacted statutes: “Be it enacted by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty…” That text might imply that the Queen is a source of legislative authority, but there is no practical sense in which legislation depends upon her. Similarly, it might misunderstand the American system to think that Congress is in practice, or ought in practice to be, limited by its enumerated powers (as opposed to by the political process and by affirmative constitutional prohibitions) — even though we continue to repeat the traditional statement. One important difference between the two cases, however, is that in the British system there is no controversy about whether the Queen should enjoy legislative power. In the American system, where there is serious disagreement about whether the enumerated powers of Congress must be limiting, it is necessary to bring the ritual-continuity aspect of the maxim more clearly into view, thus explaining why we could be attached to the maxim even if it need do no important practical work in the operations of governance.

Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional interpretation, powers of Congress

Suggested Citation

Primus, Richard, Why Enumeration Matters (March 25, 2015). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 416, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2471924 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2471924

Richard Primus (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

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