Tag Archives: federalism

First It Was Taney

The New Republic recently published a long but incredibly illuminating essay on the Supreme Court.It deserves to be read in its entirety.

The author, Brynn Tannehill, compared the Roberts Court to past Courts that today are widely considered to have decided important cases wrongly–beginning with the Taney Court. In 1857, that Court decided  in Dred Scott that Scott was not a free man, that no Black person could be a citizen of the United States, and that Black people were not entitled to Constitutional protections. As Tannehill says, that decision doomed the country to civil war.

Worse, Taney’s Court effectively eliminated the rights of free states to prohibit slavery on their own territory– relying on the same sort of “originalist” logic used by Justice Alito in Dobbs v. Jackson.

Roger Taney was not the only Chief Justice to preside over a retrograde Supreme Court. Following the Civil War, the Court led by Chief Justice Morrison Waite, “delivered decision after decision that ended Reconstruction.”

In United States v. Reese, the court ruled 7–2 that “racially neutral” voter suppression measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause were constitutional. In United States v. Cruikshank, the Waite court ruled 9–0 that the federal government had no right to arrest the people responsible for the Colfax Massacre, the 1873 Louisiana riot where dozens of Black militiamen were murdered by a white mob. The Waite court also decided unanimously in Minor v. Happersett that women do not have a constitutional right to vote.I

n Elk v. Wilkins, the Waite court ruled 7–2 that being born on U.S. soil did not grant citizenship to Native Americans. The court also upheld miscegenation laws 9–0 in the 1883 case Pace v. Alabama. That same year, a majority struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in The Civil Rights Cases of 1883. Later, in 1896, under Chief Justice Melville Fuller, the Supreme Court enshrined segregation via Plessy v. Ferguson, under the rubric of states’ rights.

Ironically, these decisions were framed as protective of limited government and individual liberty–as Tannehill writes, “freedom in the abstract, but only in the abstract.”

As if to drive this point home, the Roberts court ruled in Shinn v. Ramirez that it doesn’t matter if a person is innocent based on the preponderance of the evidence; so long as procedure was followed, the state can still execute people. Justice in the abstract, and only in the abstract, all over again.

Then there’s the Roberts Court.

It struck down most of the Voting Rights Act . It permitted states to strip Native Americans of their right to vote using the pretext of preventing voter fraud.  Worst of all, the court recognized that partisan gerrymandering is inconsistent with democracy, but declined to do anything about it.

The Roberts Court also seems intent on eviscerating Jefferson’s wall between church and state. It keeps finding that Christian organizations have a right to government money, as well as a “freedom”  to discriminate against LGBTQ people, Jews, and others.

This is freedom in the abstract: Even if Jews and LGBTQ people were allowed to discriminate against Christians, it would have a negligible impact on Christians compared to Christians being permitted to discriminate against groups that make up much smaller percentages of the population. It is akin to saying Christians can only shop at Kroger, and Jews can only shop at Jewish-run businesses: The harm falls disproportionately on the minority groups.

Tannehill reviews several pending cases with potential to upend federalism:

But the real Dred Scott moment will be at hand when red states begin trying to extradite people from the blue states for the crime of getting abortions, providing abortions, or providing transition-related care to transgender people. Deep blue states have been creating haven and sanctuary laws to protect women, doctors, transgender people, and parents of trans youth. Both California and Massachusetts have passed sanctuary laws that would prevent people from being extradited for seeking abortions in their states. Given that eradicating abortion and eliminating health care for trans people have become the top social policy priorities for conservatives, the reaction from powerhouses like the Heritage Foundation has been swift: They see these blue-state moves as a direct threat to their agenda.

Eventually, the Supreme Court will have to decide, are people free once they leave a state like Texas? Or do they remain property of that state forever, even if they leave?

It’s entirely possible that this Court would follow Dred Scott and allow extradition. If so, officials in the “sanctuary” states would be under heavy pressure to refuse to comply.

At that point, federalism, and the Union, are dead, as states refuse to recognize the legitimacy of court decisions, and the comparisons with the Taney court are complete.

You really need to read the entire essay.

Dangerous Insanity

Climate change denialism has become much more difficult lately, as evidence in the form of heat waves, increasingly strong hurricanes, wildfires and the like continue to grow. And in most countries, as a recent article from the New York Times notes in its opening paragraphs, political fights over efforts to combat global warming are focused on the “how”–not on the immediacy or existential nature of the threat.

But then there’s the good old USA, and the GOP.

The article’s headline is “Weaponizing Public Office Against Climate Action,” and it documents yet another drawback of American federalism–the ability of Republican officeholders in Red States to actually bolster fossil fuel companies at the expense of the climate. It isn’t just in Texas, where we’ve become used to the deranged antics of Gov. Greg Abbott. (Abbott has actually prohibited state agencies from investing in businesses that have cut ties with fossil fuel companies.)

The Times investigation revealed a “coordinated effort by state treasurers to use government muscle and public funds to punish companies trying to reduce greenhouse gases.

Nearly two dozen Republican state treasurers around the country are working to thwart climate action on state and federal levels, fighting regulations that would make clear the economic risks posed by a warming world, lobbying against climate-minded nominees to key federal posts and using the tax dollars they control to punish companies that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past year, treasurers in nearly half the United States have been coordinating tactics and talking points, meeting in private and cheering each other in public as part of a well-funded campaign to protect the fossil fuel companies that bolster their local economies.

Last week, Riley Moore, the treasurer of West Virginia, announced that several major banks — including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo — would be barred from government contracts with his state because they are reducing their investments in coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

This is–rather obviously– insane. It’s as if an immensely wealthy patient diagnosed with terminal cancer were to decree that none of his monies could ever be used for cancer research or for the production of cancer treatments–and should instead be invested in Roundup and other cancer-producing products.

Mr. Moore and the treasurers of Louisiana and Arkansas have pulled more than $700 million out of Ti, the world’s largest investment manager, over objections that the firm is too focused on environmental issues. At the same time, the treasurers of Utah and Idaho are pressuring the private sector to drop climate action and other causes they label as “woke.”

 And treasurers from Pennsylvania, Arizona and Oklahoma joined a larger campaign to thwart the nominations of federal regulators who wanted to require that banks, funds and companies disclose the financial risks posed by a warming planet.

Reporters traced these efforts to a little-known nonprofit organization based in Shawnee, Kansas, identifying the State Financial Officers Foundation, an organization that once focused on cybersecurity, as the “nexus” of these actions . Following the election of President Biden, who pledged to make addressing climate change a significant element of his agenda, the Foundation began pushing Republican state treasurers–elected officials responsible for managing their state’s finances–“to use their power to promote oil and gas interests and to stymie Mr. Biden’s climate agenda, records show.”

The Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute and the American Petroleum Institute are among the conservative groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry that have been working with the State Financial Officers Foundation and the treasurers to shape their national strategy.

The Times notes that Democratic treasurers in Blue states support efforts to combat climate change; they  encourage banks and investment firms to acknowledge the risks that climate change poses to returns for retirees and others. But they haven’t created anything like the national campaign being orchestrated by the State Financial Officers Foundation.

Rational people–a category that rather clearly excludes these Republican treasurers–understand that  global warming is already damaging agriculture and causing extreme weather events that devastate communities and cost taxpayers billions in recovery and rebuilding. Instead, they insist that efforts to reduce emissions threaten employment.

These GOP treasurers have turned climate science into yet another issue in the Republicans’ unrelenting and suicidal culture wars.

But here’s the thing: It’s one thing to recognize that the economic health and quality of life in Blue states is superior to that of Red States. Americans can shrug–or move. However, we can’t create environmental silos–the stupidity and/or cupidity of these GOP officeholders affects the future livability of the entire globe.

The GOP proudly asserts that it isn’t “woke.” (We’ve noticed.)

The opposite of wakefulness, of course, is sleep. In this case, it’s a coma…..

 

 

Allow Me To Repeat Myself…

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time To Rethink Federalism

I used to begin my classes in Law and Public Policy with what I call the “constitutional architecture,” the structures of U.S. government. As I would tell students, the Founders had divided authority both vertically and horizontally–through Separation of Powers and Federalism.

Most graduate students were familiar with those terms. Undergraduates generally knew that we had three branches of government, although the term “Separation of Powers” was less familiar to them, but very few could define federalism–the division of jurisdiction between the federal government and the states. Both mechanisms were intended to provide “checks and balances”–to limit the power of the central government.

The world we inhabit is very different from the world that confronted the nation’s founders. We still need federalism–but it is past time to review and adjust the current divisions of authority among local, state and federal levels of government.

A number of those divisions are still useful and should be retained. State and federal governments have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to choose a couple of examples, but other current 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, it’s an invitation to misconduct–an invitation that  state-level lawmakers eagerly accept.

In a number of areas, there are awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where contemporary realities mean none really exists. (Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the similar “strings” attached to federal funding.) 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are an increasing number of issues, including but certainly not limited to the threats posed by climate change and the pandemic, that must be addressed globally.

Then there are the increasing tensions created by legislators in red states who want to be free of the constraints imposed by the Bill of Rights.

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 Donald Trump managed to pack the Supreme Court with rightwing ideologues–they have been forbidden to retract them.

There are multiple reasons to revisit the division of authority between the nation’s state and federal governments. I realize that any effort to do so would be met with alarm–much as we’ve seen with calls to eliminate the filibuster that currently prevents the Senate from actually governing. We humans are creatures of habit: we become accustomed to the world we have grown up with, and assume that the structures of whatever society we inhabit are just “the way it is.” (A great example: the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman.” That’s demonstrably false. Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage. But it was true within the confines of their limited experience.)

A recent guest essay in The New York Times pointed to the undeniably negative effect of our current federalism on public health.

Tennessee and North Carolina are both digging out from catastrophic flooding, while parts of Louisiana were flattened by Hurricane Ida, and most of New Orleans remains without electricity. Ida’s remnants also brought even more rain to areas of the South and beyond that were already dangerously waterlogged.

In the Utter Failure to Understand What “Pro-Life” Really Means tournament, normally a very close battle in the red states, Texas is currently uncontested: Its leaders just made it easier to carry a gun and harder to end an unwanted pregnancy in the same week.

Finally, in the Colossally Botched Medical Emergency competition, it’s neck and neck across the region as Republican governors double down on efforts to block mask and vaccine mandates, along with every other pandemic-mitigation attempt made by people who are not allergic to science.

The author points out that every single one of these disasters is a public health emergency that red state governors have worsened “in every way imaginable.” (A recent NBC poll confirmed that politics has played havoc with public health. It found 91 percent of Biden voters vaccinated opposed to 50 percent of Trump voters.)

 Citizens’ health and safety– and the extent of their civil rights–  should not depend upon their state of residence. 

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.