That quote has long been on my list of best quotes about federalism in the history of the Supreme Court, so I was pleased to see it quoted in a Supreme Court case that came out today, Bond v. United States. It's a quote within a quote, and now it's a quote within a quote within a quote.
One thing I like about it, aside from the sound principle — that the constitutional structures of government were devised to protect the people — is that Justice O'Connor, in New York v. United States, was quoting a Justice Blackmun opinion that was a dissent from an opinion she wrote one year earlier. In that earlier case, Coleman v. Thompson, Blackmun had chided her for relying on federalism as if it existed for the sake of the states rather than for the people. It seemed as though Justice O'Connor felt a need to get on the right side of that principle.
In today's case, Bond, the Blackmun/O'Connor idea about federalism was used to explain why a criminal defendant had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the federal crime she was charged with (the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998). (Carol Anne Bond had put caustic chemicals on a doorknob, door handle, and mailbox likely to be touched by a woman who had gotten pregnant via Bond's husband.)
Bond made a federalism-based constitutional challenge, and the Court of Appeals said that she lacked standing because she wasn't asserting her own legal rights or interests — as required by standing doctrine. In this view, only the states have standing to raise the issue that Congress has exceeded its enumerated powers and made a crime in an area that is reserved to the states under the 10th Amendment.
Intuitively, you should sense that the Court of Appeals was wrong. Here's this woman, charged with a crime that is — if she's right about the scope of Congress's power — a nullity. She's supposed to endure conviction and punishment on the theory that only the state is allowed to say that Congress overstepped its power? That's crazy.
Do you see how eloquently the old Blackmun/O'Connor quote explained why it's crazy?
Because the limitations of federalism exist to protect citizens from the excesses of power, when Bond argues that there is a federalism limit on congressional power, she is asserting her own legal interests.