States' rights

States' rights

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States' rights refers to the idea, in U.S. politics and constitutional law, that U.S. states possess certain rights and political powers in relation to the federal government. A commonly cited source for states' rights is the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights. The states' rights concept is usually used to defend a state law that the federal government seeks to override, or to oppose a perceived violation by the federal government of the bounds of federal authority.


The phrase "states' rights" (and all variants of the words and the phrase) does not appear in the U.S. Constitution or its amendments -- rather the word "rights" is mostly associated within the Constitution with the phrase "the people", while the word "powers" is mostly associated with government entities such as Congress or states. Therefore, the phrase states' powers is more technically consistent with the terminology of the authors of the U.S. Constitution, with the phrase "States' rights" popularized by repeated usage.


The principle of the supremacy of federal powers over those powers held by the states is based on the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution and was explained in the early 1800s by John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In the seminal case of "McCulloch v. Maryland", Marshall asserted that the laws adopted by the federal government, when exercising its Constitutional powers, are generally paramount over any conflicting laws adopted by state governments. After "McCulloch," the primary legal issues in this area concerned the scope of the powers Congress possesses under the Constitution, and whether the states possess certain powers to the exclusion of the federal government even if the Constitution does not explicitly limit them to the States.

Controversy to 1865

In the period between the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States Constitution, the states had coalesced under a much weaker federal government, pursuant to the Articles of Confederation, which gave the federal government very little, if any, authority to overrule individual states. The Constitution strengthened the federal government, authorizing it to exercise powers deemed necessary to rule over the nation as a whole, with a vague boundary between the two co-existing "levels" of government. In the event a state's law should overlap federal law, the Constitution resolved the conflict in the Supremacy Clause in Article VI in favor of the federal government, which declares federal law the "supreme Law of the Land" and provides that "the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." The Supremacy Clause applies, however, only if the federal government is acting within its Constitutionally authorized powers.

When the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which provide a classic statement in support of states' rights. According to this theory, the Federal Union is a voluntary association of states and if the central government goes too far, each state has the right to nullify that law. As Jefferson said in the Kentucky Resolutions:

Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts areunauthoritative, void, and of no force: That to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral party, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party....each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, along with the supporting Report of 1800 by Madison, became bedrock documents of Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. Those supporters, such as John Randolph, who insisted loudest on states' rights, were called "Old Republicans" into the 1820s and 1830s.

Another states' rights dispute occurred over the War of 1812. At the Hartford Convention, New England states voiced opposition to President James Madison and the war, and discussed secession from the Union.


One major and continuous strain on the union, from roughly 1820 through the Civil War, was the issue of trade and tariffs. Heavily dependent upon trade, the almost entirely agricultural and export-oriented South imported most of its manufactured needs from Europe or obtained them from the North. The North, by contrast, had a growing domestic industrial economy that viewed foreign trade as competition. Trade barriers, especially protective tariffs, were viewed as harmful to the Southern economy, which depended on exports.

In 1828, the Congress passed protective tariffs to benefit trade in the northern states, but that were detrimental to the South. Southerners vocally expressed their tariff opposition in documents such as the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest" in 1828, written in response to the "Tariff of Abominations". "Exposition and Protest" was the work of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, formerly an advocate of protective tariffs and internal improvements at federal expense.

South Carolina's Nullification Ordinance declared the tariff of 1828 and 1832 null and void within the state borders of South Carolina. It began the Nullification Crisis. Passed by a state convention on November 24 1832, it led, on December 10, to President Andrew Jackson's proclamation against South Carolina, which sent a naval flotilla and a threat of sending government ground troops to enforce the tariffs.

Civil War

Over the following decades, another dispute over states' rights moved to the forefront. The issue of slavery polarized the union, with the principles espoused by Thomas Jefferson often being cited by both anti-slavery Northerners and secessionists on the debates that ultimately led to the American Civil War. Supporters of slavery often argued that one of the rights of the states was the protection of slave property wherever it went, a position endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision. In contrast, opponents of slavery argued that the non-slave-states' rights were violated both by that decision and by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Jefferson Davis used the following argument in favor of the equal rights of states, as opposed to the declaration that all men are created equal:

The Preamble to the Confederate States Constitution begins: "We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character..."

Of course, exactly -which- states' rights were the causus belli in the Civil War remain controversial. Manisha Sinha argues in "The Counterrevolution of Slavery" that the Civil War was about states' rights such as:
*States' rights to engage in slavery;
*States' rights to force other states to permit slave ownership when the sovereign people thereof objected;
*States' rights to deem portions of their population a "subordinate and inferior class of beings", unfit for citizenship;
*States' rights to have an anti-democratic and non-republican form of government within their states, denying the franchise to even the majority of white, male citizens, due to non-ownership of property (e.g. South Carolina);
*States' rights to suppress the freedom of speech of those opposed to slavery or its expansion;
*States' rights to disturb the peace, cause commotion, kidnap, and violate the sovereignty of the non-slave States, by sending slave-catchers into their territory, to seize supposed "runaway slaves" by force of arms (including those free blacks living within those states accidentally--or willfully--"mistaken" as "runaway slaves"), and deport them in chains to the heart of the Slave Power; see the Fugitive Slave Act;
*States' rights to send armed bandit gangs into the territories of the United States, there to levy war upon the residents within who disagreed with slavery, or its expansion, and to pervert the democratic and republican form of the territorial governments, so as to make them an outpost of the Slave Power; see Bleeding Kansas;
*States' rights to effect their unilateral separation from the Federal union after an election whose result they disagreed with;
*States' rights to engage in aggression against the Federal union, and upon the non-secessionist States, to raid the maritime commerce thereof, to incite hostile commotions within, to attempt to take the property of the Federal union with force of arms following their purported secession, but preceding peaceful negotiation as to an orderly division of Federal properties following that secession; see Fort Sumter;
*States' rights to violate human and natural rights;
*States' rights to overturn the radical idealism of the American Revolution, the core of which being expressed in the Declaration of Independence--that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the American Civil War, many on the Union side believed themselves to be fighting a war against this "Southern version" of states' rights--a war for freedom for all Americans, regardless of skin color, and against slavery, and the slave power that the Confederacy represented. An example of this sentiment can be found in a verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a popular marching song sung by Union soldiers in the American Civil War: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."

ince 1865

With "United States v. Cruikshank" (1876), a case that arose out of the Colfax Massacre, the Fourteenth Amendment, First Amendment and Second Amendment were held by the Supreme Court of the United States to apply only to state actions, not private acts of violence.

"United States v. Harris" (1883) held that the Equal Protection Clause did not apply to an 1883 prison lynching since the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to states, not to individual criminal matters.

The "Civil Rights Cases" (1883) allowed segregation by striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a statute that prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. There, the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause applied only to acts done by states, not to those done by private individuals; because the Civil Rights Act of 1875 applied to private establishments, the Court said, it exceeded congressional power under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"Plessy v. Ferguson" (1896) held that the separate but equal doctrine complied with the Equal Protection Clause, and marked the beginning of Jim Crow laws by legalizing "de jure" segregation. The Fourteenth Amendment and Fifteenth Amendment would be largely inactive until the American Civil Rights Movement. Some modern courts up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court still interpret the "Civil Rights Cases" as limiting the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment.

By the beginning of the 20th century, greater cooperation began to grow between the State and Federal Governments, and soon the Federal Government began to gain more power. It was early in this development that a Federal income tax was implemented, first during the Civil War and then permanently with the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. Before this, the State played a larger role in government. Soon following this implementation was the Great Depression, the New Deal and then World War II, during which time the Federal Government continued to take on more authority and responsibility. The case of Wickard v. Filburn allowed the Federal Government to enforce the Agricultural Adjustment Act, providing for subsidies and limits to farmers, arguing this affected interstate commerce and so came under the jurisdiction of the commerce clause.

After World War II, President Harry Truman supported a civil rights bill and desegregated the army. The reaction was a split in the Democratic Party that led to the formation of the "States' Rights Party", better known as the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond. Thurmond ran as the States' Rights candidate for President in 1948, losing to Truman.

Civil Rights Movement

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the longstanding use of states' rights to maintain Southern racial politics was highlighted with proponents of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws denouncing federal interference in these state-level policies.

"Brown v. Board of Education" (1954) overruled the "Plessy v. Ferguson" (1896) decision, but the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments were largely inactive in the South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [ Civil Rights Act of 1964] ] ( [ 42 USC 21] ) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Several states passed Interposition Resolutions to declare that the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown usurped state's rights.

There was states' rights opposition to voting rights at Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was part of the Selma to Montgomery marches that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo are three civil rights workers who were murdered by opponents of civil rights. [Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and Canaan's Edge by Taylor Branch]

Contemporary debates

In 1964, the issue of fair housing in California involved the boundary between state laws and federalism. California Proposition 14 overturned the Rumsford Fair Housing Act and allowed discrimination of any type on home sales. Martin Luther King and others saw this as a backlash against civil rights. Actor Ronald Reagan gained popularity by supporting Proposition 14, and was later elected governor of California. [ Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch, page 242] The U.S. Supreme Court's [ Reitman Vs. Mulkey] decision overturned Proposition 14 in 1967 in favor of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Another concern is the fact that on more than one occasion, the Federal Government has threatened to withhold highway funds from states that did not pass certain articles of legislation. Any state which lost highway funding for any extended period would face financial impoverishment, infrastructure collapse or both. Although the first such action (the enactment of a national speed limit) was directly related to highways and done in the face of a fuel shortage, most subsequent actions have had little or nothing to do with highways and have not been done in the face of any compelling national crisis. An example of this would be the federally mandated drinking age of 21. Critics of such actions feel that when the Federal Government does this they upset the traditional balance between the state and Federal governments.

More recently, the issue of states' rights has come to a head when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommended that Congress and the Department of Defense implement sweeping changes to the National Guard by consolidating some Guard installations and closing others. These recommendations in 2005 drew strong criticism from many states, and several states sued the federal government on the basis that Congress and the Pentagon would be violating states' rights should they force the realignment and closure of Guard bases without the prior approval of the governors from the affected states. After Pennsylvania won a federal lawsuit to block the deactivation of the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, defense and Congressional leaders chose to try and settle the remaining BRAC lawsuits out of court, reaching compromises with the plaintiff states. [ [ Judge Rules Favorably in Pennsylvania BRAC Suit (Associated Press, 26 August)] ]

Current states' rights issues include the death penalty, assisted suicide,
gay marriage, doctor-assisted suicide in Gonzales v. Oregon, and the medical use of marijuana, the last of which is in violation of federal law. In Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government and permitted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to arrest medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

tates' rights as "code word"

The term "states' rights", some have argued, was used as a code word by defenders of segregation, and was the official name of the "Dixiecrat" party led by segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond. George Wallace, the Alabama governor, who famously declared in his inaugural address, "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!", later remarked that he should have said, "States' rights now! States' rights tomorrow! States' rights forever!" Wallace, however, claimed that segregation was but one issue symbolic of a larger struggle for states' rights; in that view, which some historians dispute, his replacement of "segregation" with "states' rights" would be more of a clarification than a euphemism. [Carter, Dan T. "From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994". p. 1.]

tates' rights and the Rehnquist Court

The Supreme Court's "Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett" (2001) [ [ Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama et al. v. Garrett et al., U. S. Supreme Court, decided February 21, 2001] ] and "Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents" (2000) [ [ Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, U. S. Supreme court, decided January 11, 2000] ] decisions allowed states to use a rational basis review for discrimination against the aged and disabled, arguing that these types of discrimination were rationally related to a legitimate state interest, and that no "razorlike precision" was needed. The Supreme Court's "United States v. Morrison" (2000) [ [ United States v. Morrison, U. S. Supreme Court, decided May 15, 2000] ] decision limited the ability of rape victims to sue their attackers in Federal Court. Rehnquist explained that "States historically have been sovereign" in the area of law enforcement, which in the Court's opinion required narrow interpretations of the Commerce Clause and Fourteenth Amendment.

"Kimel", "Garrett" and "Morrison" indicated that the Court's previous decisions in favor of enumerated powers and limits on Congressional power over the states, such as "United States v. Lopez" (1995), "Seminole Tribe v. Florida" (1996) and "City of Boerne v. Flores" (1997) were more than one time flukes. In the past, Congress relied on the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause for passing civil rights bills, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Lopez" limited the Commerce Clause to things that directly affect interstate commerce, which excludes issues like gun control laws, hate crimes and other crimes that affect commerce but are not directly related to commerce. "Seminole" reinforced the "sovereign immunity of states" doctrine, which makes it difficult to sue states for many things, especially civil rights violations. The "Flores" "congruence and proportionality" requirement prevents Congress from going too far in requiring states to comply with the Equal Protection Clause, which replaced the ratchet theory advanced in "Katzenbach v. Morgan" (1966). The ratchet theory held that Congress could ratchet up civil rights beyond what the Court had recognized, but that Congress could not ratchet down judicially recognized rights. An important precedent for "Morrison" was "United States v. Harris" (1883), which ruled that the Equal Protection Clause did not apply to a prison lynching because the state action doctrine applies Equal Protection only to state action, not private criminal acts. Since the ratchet principle was replaced with the "congruence and proportionality" principle by "Flores", it was easier to revive older precedents for preventing Congress from going beyond what Court interpretations would allow. Critics such as Supreme Court Justice Stevens accused the Court of judicial activism (interpreting law to reach a desired conclusion).

The tide against federal power in the Rehnquist court was stopped in the cases "Bush v. Gore" and "Gonzales v. Raich", in which the court upheld the federal power to prohibit medical use of cannabis even if states have permitted it. Rehnquist himself was a dissenter in the "Raich" case.

ee also

*Origins of the American Civil War
*Compact theory

External links

* [ Tenth Amendment Center] Federalism and States Rights in the U.S.
* [ A copy of transcript of Florida's 1957 Interposition Resolution, made available for public use by the State Archives of Florida]



Secondary sources

*Ann Althouse. "Why Talking about "States' Rights" Cannot Avoid the Need for Normative Federalism Analysis" "Duke Law Journal", Vol. 51, 2001
* Lynn A. Baker & Ernest A. Young, "Federalism and the Double Standard of Judicial Review" , 51 "Duke Law Journal" (2001), which argues at 143-49 : "To many, [the notion of states' rights] stands for an anachronistic (and immoral) preference for the race-based denial of essential individual rights....".
*Daniel A. Farber. "States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876" "Constitutional Commentary", Vol. 18, 2001
*Russell Kirk, "Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought" (1951)
* Forrest McDonald. "States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876" (2002)
* Norman K. Risjord, "The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson" (1965]
* Manisha Sinha; "Revolution or Counterrevolution?: The Political Ideology of Secession in Antebellum South Carolina" "Civil War History", Vol. 46, 2000 in JSTOR
* Manisha Sinha. "The Counter-Revolution Of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina", The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Further reading

*Frederick D. Drake, ed. "States' Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History" (1999)

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  • states' rights — noun 1. a doctrine that federal powers should be curtailed and returned to the individual states • Hypernyms: ↑doctrine, ↑philosophy, ↑philosophical system, ↑school of thought, ↑ism • Hyponyms: ↑nullification 2 …   Useful english dictionary

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