Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority

469 U.S. 528 (1985)

Facts of the Case

The dispute in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority centers on the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to employees of a state-owned mass-transit authority. The plaintiff, Garcia (plaintiff), along with other employees, sought overtime back-pay from the San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (SAMTA) (defendant), which had ceased paying federal standard wages and overtime after the Supreme Court’s decision in National League of Cities v. Usery.

The Department of Labor had ruled that SAMTA could be regulated under the FLSA, but SAMTA filed suit against the Department seeking a declaratory judgment that its actions were not subject to congressional regulation.

SAMTA argued that its functions were traditional government activities and thus immune from FLSA under the National League of Cities decision. This case arose from the historical transition of private mass transit to publicly owned entities and the subsequent reliance on federal funding to maintain operations. The central question was whether SAMTA’s mass-transit operations were a traditional governmental function exempt from the FLSA.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. SAMTA ceased paying federal standard wages and overtime following National League of Cities v. Usery.
  2. The Department of Labor ruled that SAMTA could be regulated under the FLSA.
  3. SAMTA filed suit against the Department of Labor for a declaratory judgment.
  4. Garcia filed suit against SAMTA for overtime back-pay.
  5. The District Court ruled in favor of SAMTA, finding it exempt from FLSA obligations.
  6. The Supreme Court granted certiorari after an appeal by Garcia and the Department of Labor.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to enforce the FLSA’s minimum-wage and overtime provisions against state-owned mass-transit authorities engaged in operations considered ‘traditional governmental functions’.

Rule of Law

The rule of law at issue is whether the principles set forth in National League of Cities v. Usery regarding the Commerce Clause’s application to state government activities should be reconsidered, specifically in the context of applying federal wage and hour regulations to state-run entities.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court found that distinguishing between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ governmental functions as a standard for state immunity under the Commerce Clause was unworkable and inconsistent with established principles of federalism.

The ambiguity and inconsistencies in identifying what constitutes a traditional function led to considerable legal uncertainty across various cases. The Court observed that such a distinction does not accommodate changes in historical functions of states and their subdivisions, nor does it offer a clear, objective measure for state immunity.

Upon reevaluation, the Court overruled National League of Cities, concluding that the FLSA could apply to state-owned mass-transit authorities like SAMTA, as the attempt to draw boundaries based on ‘traditional governmental function’ was neither workable nor consistent with federalism principles.


The United States Supreme Court decided to overrule National League of Cities v. Usery, consequently holding that Congress could enforce the minimum-wage and overtime provisions of the FLSA against the States, even in areas previously considered ‘traditional governmental functions’, like SAMTA’s mass-transit operations.

Key Takeaways

  1. The distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ governmental functions is not a workable standard for determining state immunity under the Commerce Clause.
  2. The Supreme Court’s decision signifies that even state-run entities performing traditional government functions can be subject to federal labor laws like the FLSA.
  3. By overruling National League of Cities v. Usery, this case represents a significant shift in federalism principles as they relate to congressional power over state government activities.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines if an action falls under the Commerce Clause?

An action falls under the Commerce Clause if it substantially affects interstate commerce, which includes activities that involve the production, distribution, or consumption of commodities that may cross state boundaries, as well as services and local activities that have a significant economic impact on interstate commerce.

  • For example: A state law requiring all apples sold in the state to be packaged in a certain way would fall under the Commerce Clause if it significantly affects the pricing or availability of apples in other states.

How has the interpretation of federalism evolved in relation to the Commerce Clause?

Federalism’s interpretation has evolved to balance the power between federal and state governments, with recent jurisprudence favoring a cooperative approach over strict separation. This includes upholding federal statutes when they address issues with broad economic effects that transcend state borders, recognizing the intertwined nature of local and national interests.

  • For example: The federal government may regulate pollution standards for vehicles, despite transportation being considered a local concern, because pollution does not adhere to state boundaries and thus has nationwide implications.

What legal principle helps determine when a state entity can be subject to federal regulations?

The legal principle is the ‘doctrine of intergovernmental immunity,’ which suggests that states and their instrumentalities enjoy certain immunities from federal regulation. However, this principle gets overridden when Congress exercises its powers under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause to enforce laws based on a significant national interest.

  • For example: A state-owned university might be exempt from certain tax burdens by virtue of this doctrine but could still be subject to federal employment regulations because ensuring fair labor practices is a national concern.


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