Tag Archives: states rights

Skinning That Cat

There’s an old adage to the effect that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I thought about that when I read a recent opinion column in the New York Times, focusing on Mitch McConnell’s packing of the federal bench with rightwing judges.

The article began by acknowledging that McConnell and Trump–enabled by their allies in the Senate– have packed the federal courts with more than 200 conservative judges over the last four years. Their remaking of the federal judiciary includes three Supreme Court justices, and is part and parcel of the rightwing effort to achieve what it could never manage to achieve through legislation– “including eliminating health care for millions and undermining what remains of the Voting Rights Act.”

The authors of the essay remind readers that we are not entirely helpless in the face of this ideological takeover; they advocate taking a page from the conservatives and forging “a new form of progressive federalism.” 

First, state elected officials must be ready to respond quickly to, or act in advance of, rulings from the Supreme Court. If, for example, the Affordable Care Act is weakened or struck down, Democratic state legislatures should have bills drafted to introduce that day to protect people who will lose coverage. And officials must act now to protect and expand access to reproductive health care — especially for poor women and women of color — given the clear threat to Roe v. Wade.

Are excessively business-friendly federal courts making it easier for companies to pollute? Harder for government agencies to address racism? Progressive states can pass policies “to patch holes ripped open” by those courts.

if the Supreme Court further constrains the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, states can go after corporations for violations of state securities and consumer protection statutes. If the court adopts cramped readings of federal environmental statutes, state regulators must use their tools to go after the country’s largest polluters. And if the court continues to undermine federal bribery laws, state attorneys general can bring corrupt politicians to justice under state criminal law.

What about states like Indiana, deep red and highly unlikely to follow that prescription? In those states, progressive advocacy groups and lawyers outside government can bring lawsuits to enforce rights protected by state constitutions. When I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, our affiliate brought such suits, and several were successful. And in the early days of the gay rights movement, organizations like Lambda Legal and the ACLU achieved state-by-state victories that ultimately helped change a nationally homophobic legal environment.

Recently, Nevada became the first state in the country to officially protect same-sex marriage in its Constitution. As the essay reminds us, several states have refused to allow their police take part in the federal government’s immigration crackdown. States

can rely on conservative decisions that promote state independence from the heavy hand of Washington. The very jurisprudential tools that make it harder for Washington to achieve progressive aims can empower states to do so instead.

Ironically, the same federalism that facilitated slavery and Jim Crow under the veil of “states’ rights” can be turned to progressive ends.

It’s slower and will take more work, but there’s more than one way to skin that cat.

 

Federalism On Steroids?

There are many observations we might make about the newest Supreme Court Justice and the travesty of her elevation. Assuming Democratic reluctance to enlarge the Court in a tit-for-tat response to the last 12 years of GOP court packing, one of those observations concerns prospects for federalism and states’ rights.

As Elizabeth Warren noted in a speech opposing Barrett, the nominee carefully refused to answer numerous important questions. She wouldn’t say whether the Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to contraception was correct, or whether the government is entitled to criminalize a same-sex relationship. Despite the applause from Republicans about the size of her family (seven children!), she refused to opine that it’s wrong to separate children from their parents at the border. She called climate change “controversial.” She evaded  many other inquiries, including what should have been considered “softball” questions: whether it’s OK to intimidate voters at the polls, and whether a president has the right to postpone an election.

When she held up that blank notepad she’d brought to the hearing, it was evident that the pristine paper was her reminder to abstain from sharing anything resembling content.

it is likely that Barrett will join Trump’s other regressive Court picks, and rubber-stamp state laws that violate rights we have come to view as American, endorsing a radical federalism allowing the rights of individuals to be defined by the states in which they live.

I’ve previously posted about the demographic shifts we’ve seen and the effects those shifts have had on equal treatment and “one person, one vote.” I’ve previously recommended Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and its analysis of what he called “voting with our feet.” The likelihood of a radical return to “states’ rights” is likely to super-charge that residential apartheid.

States like Indiana already struggle to retain young people–especially educated young people. Red states like ours will rush to take advantage of their new imperviousness to federal constitutional constraints. They won’t just outlaw abortion (and in some states, access to birth control), they’ll expand gun rights, restrict access to health care and eviscerate their already paltry social safety nets. The Court has already declined to interfere with a variety of vote suppression tactics that favor the GOP–everything from gerrymandering, to ballot counting, to poll hours and locations.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until now–they have been forbidden to retract them.

The new approach to federalism–what one might call “federalism on steroids”–will upend that understanding of American citizenship. The extent of your rights will depend upon your state of residence. If the young people with whom I interact are any indication, that’s a situation that threatens to leave a number of red states with a dwindling and aging population.

America has already seen its population shift to urban areas. As the “creative class” (and those who want to employ them) described by Richard Florida increasingly cluster in vibrant municipalities, those urban locations become even more attractive.

Gay families aren’t going to locate in states that refuse to recognize their marriages or parental rights. Women aren’t going to choose locations that allow the government to dictate their most intimate decisions. Few families will want to live in states where gun owners are encouraged to bring firearms everywhere, including schools. (And don’t think this is hyperbole–here in Indiana, we have state representatives who work constantly to legislate that “freedom.’)

States offering universal healthcare (a la Massachusetts) will look awfully good to a lot of Americans.

I wonder: At what point do “states’ rights” and a commitment to expanded “local control” end up creating separate and not-so-equal  parts of what has been one country? At what point will fiscally healthy blue states decide to stop supporting “taker” red states?

When does federalism on steroids translate into secession?

 

A New Nation-State

Apologies for yesterday’s accidental post-that-wasn’t. I clearly don’t do stir-crazy very well….

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Should the GOP manage to manipulate–rig– the 2020 election and somehow re-elect Trump–maybe I won’t have to move into my son’s house in Amsterdam, or go to Canada, which have been my choices so far.

Maybe I can just move to California. which Governor Gavin Newsom has begun referring to  as a “Nation-State.”

California this week declared its independence from the federal government’s feeble efforts to fight Covid-19 — and perhaps from a bit more. The consequences for the fight against the pandemic are almost certainly positive. The implications for the brewing civil war between Trumpism and America’s budding 21st-century majority, embodied by California’s multiracial liberal electorate, are less clear.

 Speaking on MSNBC, Governor Gavin Newsom said that he would use the bulk purchasing power of California “as a nation-state” to acquire the hospital supplies that the federal government has failed to provide. If all goes according to plan, Newsom said, California might even “export some of those supplies to states in need.”

 “Nation-state.” “Export.”

(Newsom’s “Nation-State” differs from what Mike Bloomberg and others have referred to as “the rise of City-States” in response to climate change.)

In what the quoted article calls “civil war by other means,” Newsom is sending a message, not to Trump (who lacks the intellect to decode communications in any event), but to both political parties.

The GOP has been waging war on democratic values, institutions and laws for a number of years. The Democrats have been playing defense (and arguably not very well).

The GOP’s politicization of the Supreme Court most recently led to the unconscionable ruling requiring Wisconsin voters to risk their lives in order to cast a vote. Despite the fact that Wisconsin voters took that risk, that should have been a wake-up call.

Perhaps it was.

It’s clearly past time for Democrats to go on the offensive. Newsom is Governor of the nation’s largest state; he’s in a position to put Republicans on notice. California’s  taxpayers account for 15% of individual contributions to the U.S. Treasury, and the article suggests the state is is “now toning up at muscle beach.”

Democratic state Senator Scott Wiener, a leader in California’s cumbersome efforts to produce more housing, said soon after Newsom took office in 2019 that reorienting the state’s relationship to Washington is a necessity, not a choice.

“The federal government is no longer a reliable partner in delivering health care, in supporting immigrants, supporting LGBT people, in protecting the environment, so we need to forge our own path,” Wiener said. “We can do everything in our power to protect our state, but we need a reliable federal partner. And right now we don’t have that.”

And that quote  was from before the federal government’s multiple failures to respond adequately to the pandemic.

Federalism has a number of virtues; as we saw in the 50s and 60s, however, “state’s rights” can also facilitate gross injustices. Its current operation is among the many governing structures we need to rethink and reorient–but that reorientation, along with all the other institutional “fixes” we need–will have to await the installation of a competent federal administration.

Meanwhile, states like California are increasingly at odds with the Republican playbook: California is a sanctuary state while Trump’s GOP is demonizing immigrants; its approach to marijuana is much more permissive than that of the feds; its position on guns is diametrically opposed to that of an administration co-opted by the NRA.  Etc. Now, Trump’s dangerous mismanagement of pandemic response has essentially left California and other states to manage on their own.

One conflict, however, encompasses all others, and could galvanize Californians into new ways of thinking about their state and its relationship to Washington. The GOP war on democracy is inspired by a drive for racial and cultural supremacy that jeopardizes the democratic aspirations and human rights of California’s multiracial citizenry.

It isn’t only California. The majority of citizens in our diverse nation live in urban areas and urbanized states, while the White Supremacy Party–aka GOP–is increasingly a rural phenomenon. The states with a majority of the country’s population are under-represented in the Senate; their citizens’ votes are minimized by the Electoral College and gerrymandering.  There’s no reason to believe that these continuing inequities of minority rule won’t trigger a counterattack–and good reason to believe they will.

As the editorial concludes:

John C. Calhoun, who used the theory of states’ rights to defend the institution of slavery, is not generally a philosophical lodestar for liberal Democrats such as Newsom. But if Republicans (or foreign friends) succeed in sabotaging democracy in November, Calhoun’s theory of nullification, which posited that states have the power to defy federal law, could be ripe for a comeback on the left coast. With the heirs of the Confederacy now reigning in Washington, turnabout might be very fair play.

 

Never Thought I’d Cheer States’ Rights…

It has been somewhat lost among all his other bluster, and more recently by the diversion of his air strike against Syria, but Trump has reiterated his threat to withhold federal monies from so-called “Sanctuary” cities and states. (As many people have pointed out, the sudden onset of humanitarianism that purportedly prompted those airstrikes has yet to prompt a willingness to accept children fleeing the hellhole that is today’s Syria.)

Trump’s threats are evidently as empty as his compassion. Talking Points Memo reports that, thanks to a Supreme Court decision in a lawsuit brought by Republicans opposed to the ACA, Trump can’t withhold funds from states acting humanely. It would be illegal.

File under “be careful what you wish for”….

In 2012, the Supreme Court forced the Obama administration to make Medicaid expansion voluntary for states instead of mandatory, ruling that when the federal government “threatens to terminate other significant independent grants as a means of pressuring the States to accept” a federal policy, it is unconstitutionally coercive.

Conservative groups that celebrated this victory over “infringement on state sovereignty by the federal government” may now be dismayed to learn that it could throw a wrench into the Trump administration’s current plan to punish sanctuary cities.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently warned local officials that continued refusal to co-operate with federal immigration authorities would jeopardize approximately $4 billion dollars in unrelated grants; those grants currently support local programs addressing everything from human trafficking, sexual assault, and gang violence to mental health, gun crimes and various public safety issues.

Sessions evidently neglected to research the Administration’s authority to follow through on that threat.

Stripping the cities and counties of this funding, however, is easier said than done. Doing so could violate the 10th Amendment, which protects states’ rights against federal intrusion, and a number of Supreme Court cases, including the 2012 case that struck down Obamacare’s mandatory Medicaid expansion, legal experts warn.

“It may be unconstitutional on several grounds,” said George Washington University Law School professor John Banzhaf III.

Banzhaf argues that U.S. law dating back to the mid-1800s bars the government from “commandeering” local officials to enforce federal law in almost all instances. The 2012 Supreme Court ruling in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius expanded on this principle, holding that “states could not be required to expand Medicaid programs under threat of a loss of federal funds—the same coercive method threatened by Sessions—except where the threat was one mandated by Congress and signed into law, not a mere presidential order,” Banzhaf said.

Two other cases–one in 1987 and one from 1997–reinforce the limits on federal coercive power.

In the 1987 decision South Dakota v. Dole — which concerned a government attempt to cut highway funding to states that tried to lower the federal drinking age — the Court said the federal government can only cut grants related to the policy they are trying to enforce. Though the federal government’s argument trumped the state’s in that case, the ruling significantly narrowed the kind of funding the federal government can withhold when attempting to incentivize local governments to carry out a certain policy….

The Court went even further in 1997, ruling in Printz v. United States that “the Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.”

Sessions has now indicated that future grants will be conditioned upon compliance with federal immigration law, a tacit admission that– his threats notwithstanding–he cannot reach previous awards issued without such provisions.

I’m sure those staunch defenders of states’ rights–the ones who were so sincere when they explained that their opposition to civil rights laws had nothing to do with racial animus–will applaud this current application of federalism doctrine.

On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for their applause….

States’ Rights and Wrongs

Indiana’s embarrassing Governor recently appealed a federal court ruling that he lacked authority to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. From all reports, the appeal’s oral argument did not go well for the state.

A major reason for Pence’s loss in the District Court–and his probable loss at the appellate level–is that immigration is a federal issue over which states lack authority.

The notion that federal law should govern areas of national concern seems to rankle Donald Trump’s chosen running mate, and his annoyance isn’t limited to matters of immigration. In comments defending North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law, Pence recently insisted that the states “and the people” should be able to decide who gets rights.

The reason the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states was to ensure that a majority of people in a state could not use their local government to deprive their fellow citizens of the fundamental rights all Americans should enjoy.

There are areas in which the debate over local versus federal control are legitimate, but In the context of civil rights and civil liberties, “state’s rights” was and is a dog whistle meaning: we should get to pick on disfavored people if we want to, and the federal government shouldn’t be able to interfere.”State’s rights” was the (flimsy) cover used by defenders of segregation and Jim Crow.

What if we were to take that states’ rights “logic” to its ultimate conclusion?

What if the federal government couldn’t make states treat women or African-Americans equally? If I’m a woman living in, say, New York, and New York does choose to protect me, do I take a risk driving through, say, Alabama or Indiana, states that don’t protect women’s equality? If I am an African-American supplier doing business with national companies, do I hire a lawyer to tell me which states I can enter to visit with my customers, confident that I can find a hotel room or a restaurant that will serve me?

Shouldn’t Americans expect their fundamental rights to be respected in all of the states of the union?

There are certainly areas of the law that are local in nature. It would be nonsense to have a national zoning law. Certain criminal statutes are better enforced at the state or local level.  There are others. But in a country where people move freely and frequently, where commerce and transportation and communication are national, the notion that states should be able to legislate different levels of basic citizen rights is not just impractical and unworkable, not just unfair and inequitable–it’s profoundly  stupid.

Of course, for people who want to normalize discriminatory behaviors–what Hillary Clinton quite accurately called deplorable behaviors–the notion that the Supremacy Clause and/or the Bill of Rights might legally prevent them from doing so evidently pisses them off.

Pence refused to call even David Duke “deplorable.” I for one am pretty happy that my right to equal treatment under the law isn’t his or the Indiana General Assembly’s to decide.