Reserved power, according to Merriam-Webster, is a political power reserved by a constitution to the exclusive jurisdiction of a specified political authority. The Tenth Amendment indicates that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.
The Tenth Amendment represents the principle that supports the idea behind the original Constitution, that is to let the national government possess only those powers that were delegated to it.
Since the Constitution built a government of enumerated powers, its creators, known as the Framers and the Founding Fathers, believed that a bill of rights was potentially dangerous and that limits in the form of state bills were required. Federalists argued against the need for a federal bill of rights, as it might have changed the government of limited powers to one of the general legislative powers.
However, after a bitter debate, the Federalists took an important step forward in US history and, on December 15, 1791, finally ratified the Bill of Rights comprising the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The Tenth Amendment was made to limit federal powers that were not granted by the original Constitution and to reinforce the principles of separation of powers and federalism.
The Constitution created a system of mixed sovereignty, where each government had direct authority over citizens. The state legislatures chose Senators, defined the process of choosing presidential electors, and determined those eligible to vote for Members of the House of Representatives. James Madison noted in Federalist 39 that the concept of the new US Constitution was “neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.”
The concept of reserved powers is simply based on the fact that people are loyal to and feel closer to their state governments, especially when they spend their entire lives within a small area of land. Thus, the purpose of reserved powers was not only to reinforce the notion of federalism but also to clarify the authority of the individual states, that is, which powers would the people’s home states have.
The reserved powers that the national government cannot deny to the states include, for instance, a state’s right for commerce regulation within its borders and provisions for the state militia. States have the reserved power to make laws on matters not prohibited by the US Constitution. Moreover, historically states have the authority to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the people using police power.
Let us look at the example of how reserved powers function in the United States today. The fictional character John is a thief who spends his days stealing various items from the unsuspicious public in a rural town in Pennsylvania. One day, he gets caught for stealing a wallet from an old lady on the grounds of the US Post Office and is arrested. The federal prosecutor charges him with the theft as the Post Office is considered federal property.
However, his attorney argues that John’s crime was not against the federal agency, and therefore, it is the reserved power of the State of Pennsylvania to prosecute criminals like John to maintain law and order in its territory. From the example above, we can see how reserved powers are implemented in individual states like Pennsylvania in order to respond to a crime.