A Brief History of States’ Rights
One of the most common lines any given Republican can be found saying is that states do not have enough power. That it is a fundamental erosion of the constitution and of American ideals to usurp the powers of the individual states and give more power to the federal government. This is a very contentious topic, considering that it is almost exclusively talked about by Republicans and that we are very divided currently.
In June 1964, in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, three civil rights workers-James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, at his first campaign stop after winning the Republican nomination in Philadelphia Mississippi, stated “I believe in states’ rights…. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” He also said “[to promise to] restore states and local governments power that properly belongs to them.” This was part of the Republican party’s southern strategy, which won them the election.
When the federal government mandated desegregation, and the north liberated African-Americans, states’ rights saved the south from having to adhere to the federal government’s mandate. Historically, states’ rights have protected the states from having to progress socially, allowing them to discriminate against African-Americans, and most recently same-sex couples. It was decided in the case McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that any federal law took precedence over a state law. In the 1950s and 1960s, the African-American, the civil rights movement was blocked by supporters of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, who were against federal involvement in state laws, they claimed it was an assault on states’ rights.
Current state’s rights issues include the death penalty, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, gun control, and marijuana. In the following paragraphs, I will talk about each.
Gun control seems to become more popular when a mass shooting occurs. When the Pulse Night Club shooting happened, gun control became the most prominent issue in American social discussion. But the bottom line remains clear: Democrats believe in more background checks, closing loopholes, and overall tightening gun restrictions. As the party becomes more liberal, it moves farther toward a collective right to bear arms dogma. On the flip side, the Republican party believes in the individual right to bear arms, or in layman’s terms, they believe gun restrictions should be less strict. But Democrat’s policy on guns brings about the argument that such restrictions would be an infringement on states’ rights. Coincidentally, the states that argue this are red states. The 10th amendment says that any powers not given to the federal government are given to the states or the people. States’ rights are more of a political argument than a legal one, as states’ rights cases haven’t made their way to the Supreme Court in recent years. It seems that, in state courts, a major state gun restriction will be stuck down, whereas a minor one will be upheld. The question to be asked is, what are the consequences of giving states such rights as being able to pass and enforce major gun laws, whether they be gun restrictions or if they are deregulators. I am not sure whether major gun reform will happen until mass shootings occur more frequently.
When the Supreme Court ruled in summer 2015 that gay marriage was constitutional, one face stood out. Kentucky anti-gay marriage clerk Kim Davis refused to work because she did not want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Supreme Court ruling reopened the hot-button issue of states’ rights issue in America. The U.S. constitution says that the states get to make all laws about marriage and divorce. However, the Supreme Court ruling was not a law. The only reason that gay marriage is legal nationwide as of today because the Supreme Court struck down D.O.M.A., a Clinton-era law that discriminated against same-sex couples and heavily regulated the institution of marriage in the United States. What makes the nationwide legality of same-sex marriage constitutional is that the Supreme Court ruling isn’t a law, it’s an interpretation ofthe constitution.
This one is especially relevant to Washington, which has legal marijuana. There are medical marijuana laws in 40 states. But under federal law, marijuana is illegal under federal law. The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. § 811), that law does not recognize a difference between recreational and medical marijuana. Under federal law, marijuana is no different than more illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. As of 2016, multiple federal agencies have issued guidelines and other policy to manage the conflict between the federal and state laws on marijuana. In 2013, the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a memo to prosecutors saying that marijuana cases are not a priority. Under Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the SCOTUS said that the federal government has the authority to regulate marijuana and prohibit it for all purposes. Although the Raich decision does not say that California or any other marijuana state, is unconstitutional.
States’ rights is a very complicated issue and a very messy one. And every state’ rights issue is treated individually. Same-sex marriage and marijuana cannot have policy painted over them with a broad brush because marriage and drugs are not the same. Although personally, I stand by the claim that, at least with social issues, the argument of states’ rights is just a way for conservative states to get their way and stay stuck in the past while other states give minority groups the rights they deserve. If it weren’t for states’ rights, the civil war may not have happened. The north did not have slavery, but the south did because all states could make their own laws on slavery, instead of one federal government law that either outlawed or did not outlaw even slavery. I don’t think that states’ rights, the way it is used by states historically, is not to give states citizens rights, but to give states the rights to deny rights to their citizens. ■