Monday, May 30, 2011

Birth of a Nation Undone

This weekend I watched “Birth of a Nation,” and I was saddened by the director D.W. Griffith’s confidence that the Civil War had resolved the issue of state’s rights, After all, that’s what he meant by his title: the War Between the States had birthed a united nation and ended the belief that states were not bound by federal law. But today we live in an era where the issue of state’s rights has taken on a new power and threatens the future of this country. The refusal of many states to take federal stimulus funds, and more seriously the threat not to participate in health care reform measures are two recent examples. In today’s New York Times the lead editorial, “Inching Closer to State’s Rights,” warns that we are one Supreme Court vote away from allowing states to violate federal law.

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.

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