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The Concept of Reserved Powers Explained With Proper Examples

Reserved Powers Explained with Examples
The concept of 'reserved powers' explains why laws may differ from one state to another within the same country. Let's see the meaning of reserved powers with the help of its definition, and some interesting examples.
Akshay Chavan
Last Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Did You Know?
Portrait of president James Madison
The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave its states their reserved powers, was written by James Madison, the 'Father of the Constitution', and the country's fourth president.
A Constitution is a set of rules and laws for a country, and its government. These rules often reflect the situation that the country was going through when the Constitution was enacted.
For instance, the US Constitution takes great efforts in ensuring that the federal government does not become too powerful, because the country had just emerged from the shadow of oppressive British rule when this document was being drafted.
Constitution explains structure of a nation's government, and exact roles of every branch. This raises the question, what if a situation arises in future for which there are no provisions in the Constitution? How did the framers ensure that the states always retain their essential powers? The answer lies in the concept of 'reserved powers', explained ahead.
What are Reserved Powers?
Reserved powers are those powers given to a part of the government, despite not being mentioned in the country's Constitution. These powers are 'reserved' for a particular department, simply because the Constitution has not given it to others, or forbidden it to the first one.
Depending on the structure of a country's government, and its Constitution, these powers may either be reserved for the Constituent states, or the federal/union government. In most cases, these reserved powers are not individually specified in the Constitution, and are subject to interpretation.
Examples of Reserved Powers
The Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution says that all powers not given by it to the federal government, and those not directly forbidden to the states, are granted to the latter. This is called the 'Reserved Powers Clause', and was added to the Constitution to prevent the federal government from becoming too powerful.
These powers include trade regulation within a state's boundaries, law enforcement, local elections, and licensing. However, it has been alleged that, beginning from the early 20th century, these powers have been gradually reduced, or taken over by the federal government via successive amendments.
There are four countries in the United Kingdom (UK) - England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The parliaments/assembly of each country has been granted the power to govern itself by separate 'devolution laws'.
However, the UK Parliament has some powers reserved for itself, known as 'reserved powers' or 'matters', on which the representative bodies of these countries have no control. These reserved matters include defense, foreign relations, immigration rules, financial services, matters related to the energy sector, etc.
Australia is a Commonwealth of several states, with a common federal government and individual state administrations.
Till 1920, the High Court of Australia used the 'Reserved Powers Doctrine' to interpret the Constitution restrictively, and prevent the federal government from becoming too powerful compared to states. However, this doctrine was scrapped after a landmark judgment by the court in 1920, after which it decided to take the literal interpretation of Constitution.
Bermuda is a British island in the North Atlantic ocean, which has parliamentary system of government. Its Governor is appointed by British government, while all members of parliament are elected by residents of Bermuda.
Being self-governing British territory, most functions are performed by parliament, which represents people, while certain functions are reserved for Governor alone. These powers, called reserved powers, include external affairs, defense, internal security, & the police force.
Canada has a federal form of government, with power distributed between the Union and the states. The country's Constitution is unique, in that, it lists out powers of both, the federal and state governments (unlike USA and Australia, where each state has its own Constitution).
However, its founding fathers wanted to avoid the American principle of giving more powers to the states, which, they thought, would undermine the strength of the Union. Therefore, the federal government was given certain reserved or residual powers, such as that of unlimited taxation, while the provinces controlled affairs within their own boundaries.
Reserved powers serve two purposes. First, they maintain a balance of power between the federal and state governments. Moreover, by not listing all the reserved powers in the Constitution, the founding fathers ensure that, despite being a historic document, it can deal with all matters arising in the future too.