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The Supreme Court’s “new federalism” revolution remains one of the most important developments in recent U.S. legal history. The Court revitalized “states’ rights” doctrines under the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments, rendering states partially or wholly immune from many types of federal litigation. Simultaneously, the Court retrenched the authority of national legislators—and aggrandized its own authority—by limiting what Congress may do under its Commerce Clause, Spending Clause, and Fourteenth Amendment powers. But one important facet of this “new federalism” revolution has gone unappreciated: the load-bearing role of earlier disability-related cases. In the 1970s and 1980s, this Feature shows, the Court used disability-related cases to revive the all-but-moribund Eleventh Amendment, even as it declined to embrace Eleventh Amendment arguments in cases involving school desegregation and sex discrimination. So, too, it was disability cases that established and entrenched federalism-grounded “clear statement” rules of statutory interpretation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Likewise, a disability case in the early 1990s previewed the Court’s later diminution of Congress’s authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In crucial ways, we show, these disability precedents enabled the “new federalism” revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cases such as Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996) could not have been reasoned as they were without earlier disability precedents. The real-world consequences have been striking: the disability-related cases we discuss—and the better-known “new federalism” cases that built on them—have reduced the enforceability of federal civil rights guarantees, threatened wide swaths of social welfare legislation, and diminished Congress’s ability to respond to pressing problems. Moving forward, disability-related federalism precedents will remain important. Doctrines and language from these cases offer some of the best tools that state and local defendants have for extending the more dangerous facets of the “new federalism”—as evidenced by recent litigation in the lower courts involving voting rights and LGBTQ discrimination, among other high-stakes issues. Moreover, at the Supreme Court, disability cases have continued to provide the site for new retrenchments in Congress’s spending power, alongside robust assertions of the Court’s own authority. Thus, while conventional wisdom treats the “new federalism” revolution as a historical artifact, this Feature reveals such an assessment to be both perilous and premature.

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Yale Law Journal