In the wake of the Court’s ruling in Dobbs, several pundits have approved of the decision as a “return to federalism.” Earlier this year, I posted about America’s experience with federalism, and obviously, that analysis bears repeating.
The issue, of course, is “Which rules should be nationally-imposed, and which should be left to more local “laboratories of democracy”? Certainly, not all policy needs to be nationally uniform–there are plenty of areas where local control is appropriate. But questions about who is entitled to fundamental human rights–and what those rights are–clearly isn’t one of them.
Students who have been taught the actual history of the United States are aware of the multiple problems the country experienced under the extreme federalism of the Articles of Confederation; those problems were severe enough to prompt the replacement of the Articles with our current Constitution. In the (many) years since, however, we seem to have forgotten about the very negative consequences of national fragmentation.
The application of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments was meant to establish a national floor–to ensure that a citizen moving from say, New York to Indiana, would not thereby experience a reduction of her fundamental rights as an American citizen. Justice Alito’s evisceration of the substantive due process clause is–among other incredibly negative things– a step back toward the fragmentation of the Articles of Confederation.
Furthermore, modern technology and communication–and the needs of businesses serving a mobile population–have made uniformity imperative even for matters that were properly left to state and local governments in the 1800s.
As I’ve noted previously, the need to rationalize and unify large areas of the law gave rise to the work of the Uniform Law Commission. The Commission drafts and promotes state enactment of uniform laws in areas of state law where uniformity has been recognized to be both desirable and practical. Probably the best-known uniform law is the Uniform Commercial Code– a comprehensive set of laws governing all commercial transactions in the United States. (It has national application, but it isn’t a federal law–it was uniformly adopted by each state’s legislature. In that sense, it respected federalism.)
Obviously, commerce isn’t the only area where uniformity is “desirable and practical.” Federal action in the face of a pandemic would certainly seem to qualify, and before the incompetence and massive ignorance of the Trump administration, the federal government largely directed public health responses to threatened outbreaks. Numerous health officials have addressed the disastrous results of Trump’s decision to leave COVID response to the states. It is not hyperbole to suggest that a more co-ordinated, federalized response wouldn’t just have saved lives, but in all likelihood would have cut short the period of most vulnerability.
No serious student of governance believes that, in a country as large and diverse as the United States, all decisions should be made at the federal level. The question with which we should be grappling is “which responsibilities are properly federal and which matters are properly left to state or local governments?”
What laws need to be uniform if we are to be the United States of America, rather than a haphazard collection of Red and Blue fiefdoms? It is incomprehensible to me that anyone would choose to leave basic civil liberties up to the states–that, after all, was precisely the “federalism” that led to the civil war.
Certainly, America’s division of jurisdiction among local, state and federal levels of government is still useful–state and federal governments really have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, for example– but we need to recognize that many of our historic assignments of responsibility no longer make much sense. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, as we have seen, it’s an invitation to misconduct.
As a practical matter, federal programs have made a mockery of the increasingly awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where none really exists. Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the myriad other “strings” attached to federal funding that remind state-level agencies who’s really in charge.
If we ever get serious about actually governing again, we should take a hard look at these divisions of responsibility, and recognize that some matters are genuinely local, some require national action, and still others are planetary and must be addressed globally. Climate change is the most obvious.
I’m willing to leave zoning decisions up to local municipalities, and a substantial portion of criminal justice measures up to the states. When it comes to fundamental rights and global threats, a phony and facile “respect for federalism” is both dishonest and suicidal.