Chief Justice John Roberts is one vote short of moving the Supreme Court to a position so conservative on states’ rights that it would be to the right of the Tea Party’s idea of limited government. That chilling possibility was evident in the court’s recent ruling in the case of Virginia v. Stewart. The principle at stake dates back to a 1908 case, Ex parte Young, in which the Supreme Court held that federal courts have a paramount role in stopping a state from violating federal law. Despite the 11th Amendment’s protection of a state from being sued in federal court, all state officials must comply with federal law, which the Constitution calls “the supreme Law of the Land.”
Our federal system is useful for allowing states to try out governing ideas on smaller scales, like universal health care in Massachusetts and death with dignity laws in Oregon. But it is vitally important that there be laws that cover the entire United States that cannot be flouted by an individual state.