Tag: federalism

Republicans and the New York Marriage Law

Since New York passed a law extending marriage to same-sex couples, Republican presidential candidates have been mostly silent. But not Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has had a long and strong interest in gay rights issues. In an interview on Fox News Sunday she endorsed both New York’s Tenth Amendment right to make marriage law and the federal government’s right to override such laws with a constitutional amendment, confusing host Chris Wallace:

WALLACE: You are a strong opponent of same-marriage. What do you think of the law that was just passed in New York state—making it the biggest state to recognize same-sex marriage?

BACHMANN: Well, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. And I also believe—in Minnesota, for instance, this year, the legislature put on the ballot for people to vote in 2012, whether the people want to vote on the definition of marriage as one man, one woman. In New York state, they have a passed the law at the state legislative level. And under the 10th Amendment, the states have the right to set the laws that they want to set….

WALLACE: But you would agree if it’s passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor, then that’s a state’s position.

BACHMANN: It’s a state law. And the 10th Amendment reserves for the states that right.

WALLACE: All right. I want to follow up on that, because I’m confused by your position on this. Here’s what you said in the New Hampshire debate. Let’s put it on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BACHMANN: I do support a constitutional amendment on marriage between a man and a woman, but I would not be going into the states to overturn their state law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: That’s why I’m confused. If you support state rights, why you also support a constitutional amendment which would prevent any state from recognizing same-sex marriage?

BACHMANN: Well, because that’s entirely consistent, that states have, under the 10th Amendment, the right to pass any law they like. Also, federal officials at the federal level have the right to also put forth a constitutional amendment….

WALLACE: My point is this, do you want to say it’s a state issue and that states should be able to decide? Or would like to see a constitutional amendment so that it’s banned everywhere?

BACHMANN: It is— it is both. It is a state issue and it’s a federal issue. It’s important for your viewers to know that federal law will trump state law on this issue. And it’s also—this is why it’s important—

WALLACE: And you would [sic] federal law to trump state law?

BACHMANN: Chris, this is why it’s so important because President Obama has come out and said he will not uphold the law of the land, which is the Defense of Marriage Act. The Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act and Bill Clinton signed it into law, to make sure that a state like New York passed a definition of marriage other [sic] one man, one woman, that other states wouldn’t be forced to recognize New York’s law….

WALLACE: So, just briefly, you would support a constitutional amendment that would overturn the New York state law?

BACHMANN: Yes, I would. I would. That is not inconsistent, because the states have the right under the 10th Amendment to do what they’d like to do. But the federal government also has the right to pass the federal constitutional amendment. It’s a high hurdle, as you know.We only have 27 amendments to the federal constitution. It’s very difficult. But certainly, it will either go to the courts, or the people’s representatives at the federal level.

Congratulations to Chris Wallace for his tenacious questioning. Presumably the way to understand Bachmann’s position is that she thinks states have a Tenth Amendment right to make their own laws in any area where the federal government doesn’t step in, and she supports a federal law overriding state marriage laws. That includes the Defense of Marriage Act, whose Section 3 says for the first time in history that the federal government will not recognize marriage licenses issued by the states. And it also includes a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit states from implementing equal marriage rights for gay couples.

Bachmann is not the only Republican who should be asked about the tension between support for the Tenth Amendment and support for federal laws and amendments to carve exceptions out of the Tenth Amendment. This month George Will has praised two Texas Republicans: First, Senate candidate and former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz, whom he called a “limited-government constitutionalist” and who wrote a senior thesis at Princeton “on the Constitution’s Ninth and 10th amendments. Then as now, Cruz argued that these amendments, properly construed, would buttress the principle that powers not enumerated are not possessed by the federal government.” And second, Governor Rick Perry, who “was a ‘10th Amendment conservative‘ (‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people’) before the Tea Party appeared.”

Cruz boasts on the same page of his website of his support of both the Tenth Amendment and DOMA. Does he really think, as a staunch defender of the Tenth Amendment, that the federal government should override the marriage law of the great state of New York? Perry may be a consistent Tenth Amendment conservative. In his book Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington he makes his opposition to gay marriage more than clear. But he does write, “Crucial to understanding federalism in modern-day America is the concept of mobility, or the ability to ‘vote with your feet.’ If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas. If you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.” And an NPR interviewer reported:

States should be free to make decisions regulating such things as taxes, marijuana and gay marriage, Perry says.

“If you want to live in a state that has high taxes, high regulations — that is favorable to smoking marijuana and gay marriage — then move to California,” he says.

Now that a large state has made national headlines by passing a gay marriage law—without any prodding from the judiciary—more political candidates, from President Obama to his Republican challengers, are going to be pressed to make their positions clear on the issue of marriage equality itself, on federalism and the powers of the states, and on the lawsuits that are moving through the courts.

Of Course Defendants Can Challenge the Constitutionality of Laws Under Which They’re Prosecuted

Hard cases make bad law, the saying goes.  Well, a bizarre case that the Supreme Court decided unanimously today has set a good precedent for the enforcement of residual Tenth Amendment powers. 

As I described in December when Cato filed a brief in Bond v. United States:

Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement authorities to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Bond pled guilty and was sentenced but now appeals her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment – in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution. The Third Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, holding that Bond did not have standing to raise a Tenth Amendment challenge and that, following Supreme Court precedent, a state actor must be a party to the suit in order to challenge the federal government for impinging on state sovereignty. Bond now seeks Supreme Court review on the ground that the statute, as applied to her, is beyond the federal government’s enumerated powers.

Our brief argued that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but also that lower courts are wrong in assuming that both the president’s power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution.  That is, many judges seem to erroneously think that treaties can give the federal government powers it doesn’t otherwise have under the Constitution.

The Court’s ruling today, in a tight opinion by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that individuals can indeed raise Tenth Amendment claims that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers.  The Court took no position on the merits of Bond’s constitutional argument – relating to the expansion of federal criminal law via the Treaty Power into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels – but this non-decision is in itself a positive development because it signals that the underlying issue is in dispute.

The Third Circuit is now charged with determining in the first instance whether the law implementing the chemical weapons treaty is “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the Treaty Power, including whether it’s overbroad if it snares people like Bond.

Even if Bond loses on the merits in the Third Circuit and/or the Supreme Court, however, her case has confirmed the idea that someone directly and particularly harmed by a federal law can challenge that law’s constitutionality.  As Justice Ginsburg said in her concurrence,

a court has no “prudential” license todecline to consider whether the statute under which the defendant has been charged lacks constitutional application to her conduct. And that is so even where the constitutional provision that would render the conviction void is directed at protecting a party not before the Court. ….

In short, a law “beyond the power of Congress,” for any reason, is “no law at all.” Nigro v. United States, 276 U. S. 332, 341 (1928). The validity of Bond’s conviction depends upon whether the Constitution permits Congress to enact §229.  Her claim that it does not must be considered and decided on the merits.

For more on the proper scope of the Treaty Power, I recommend Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Update:

Josh Blackman parses Justice Kennedy’s opinion and shows how it tracks the approach that Randy Barnett and Cato have been taking in our Obamacare briefs.

State Officials Needn’t Heed Feds’ Threats

Federal officials blitzed Texas this week to fight a bill pending in Austin that would control TSA groping of air travelers in that state, reports Forbes’ “Not-So-Private Parts” blogger Kashmir Hill.

Federal government officials descended on the Capitol to hand out a letter … from the Texas U.S. Attorney letting senators know that if they passed the bill, the TSA would probably have to cancel all flights out of Texas. As much as they love their state, the idea of shutting down airports and trapping people in Texas was scary enough to get legislators to reconsider their support for the groping bill…

The federal government’s threat to shut down air travel is serious, but empty. As we’ve seen time and again with the REAL ID Act, the federal government does not have the political will to attack passenger air travel in the name of increasing surveillance and intrusion.

In fact, earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t even bother to threaten any repurcussions for states before it once again pushed back a May 2011 (false) deadline for REAL ID compliance. (Previous instances noted here and here.) The REAL ID Act allows the federal government to refuse licenses and ID cards from non-complying states at airport checkpoints, but it’s just not going to happen.

The DHS announcement notes $175 million in spending on REAL ID so far. That waste continues to accrue so long as Congress appropriates money for the national ID program, which will never be implemented.

While we’re on the subject of empty threats from federal officials—and do see Julian Sanchez’s post hitting the same subject—it has been more than four years since then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said about the REAL ID Act:

If we don’t get it done now, someone is going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.

Secretary Chertoff was wrong—factually wrong on the imminence and nature of the terror threat, and ethically wrong to tout terror threats in an attempt to defeat the will of our free people.

With our stubborn insistence on freedom, the American people and state leaders have done a better job of assessing the threat environment than the Secretary of Homeland Security. As I said when I testified on this topic to the Pennsylvania legislature, state leaders should continue to recognize that they are as equipped, if not better equipped, than federal officials to judge what is right for their people. Counterterrorism and airport security are not an exception to that, though federal imperiousness in these areas remains at a high.

Federalism and Med-Mal Reform

Thanks to star libertarian lawprof and Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett for pointing out something that has needed saying for a while: most proposals in the U.S. Congress to address medical malpractice law run into serious federalism problems.

Most medical malpractice suits go forward in state courts under state law. If the U.S. Congress wishes to impose a nationwide rule on these suits, such as by limiting damages for pain and suffering, it first needs to answer the question: under which of the federal government’s constitutionally prescribed powers is it acting? Even if it can identify such authority, it should also ask: is it a wise idea—consistent with what one might call a prudential federalism—to gather yet more power in Washington at the expense of the states?

Unfortunately, the backers of the current federal med-mal bill have chosen to rely on the Supreme Court’s very expansive “substantial effects” doctrine, which as Barnett explains:

allows Congress to regulate any economic activity in the country that can be said, in the aggregate, to have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce. This doctrine was unknown before the 1940s, and goes far beyond the original power to regulate trade between states. This is how most of Congress’ regulatory power has been justified since then.

Although it is followed even by conservative justices, Justice Clarence Thomas has long criticized the Substantial Effects Doctrine on the ground that it exceeds the original meaning of the Constitution.

Let’s step back for a moment to review what’s not at issue here. First, this is not an argument over whether liability reform of some sort is a good idea: in fact Prof. Barnett “strongly support[s] reforming our malpractice laws to protect honest doctors from false claims and out-of-control state juries.” (So do I.)

Nor is this an argument over whether the federal government should simply leave the state courts alone as a general proposition, as some late-blooming friends of federalism on the left side of the aisle seem to suggest. Our constitutional scheme of government is entirely consistent with federal-level supervision of state courts when those courts behave in certain ways, as by violating litigants’ due process, impairing the obligation of contract, or abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of other states, to name but a few. Article IV, Section 1 confers on Congress a broad charter to prescribe to states “by general Laws” how they are to accord full faith and credit to other states’ enactments. That’s not even counting Congress’s genuine interstate commerce power (as opposed to the on-steroids New Deal version) or various other powers.

But observe the pattern. Again and again, the Constitution contemplates federal supervision of state courts when they reach out to assert power over transactions and litigants outside their own boundaries. It has far less to say about intruding upon the authority of those courts over disputes that arose between their own residents and are unmistakably under their own law. That general game plan—oversee the interstate but mostly not the intrastate doings of state courts—comports well with the insight of public choice scholars who point out that states face an ongoing temptation to stack liability proceedings so as to enrich their own citizens at the expense of out-of-state litigants obliged to appear in their courts.

Where does this leave federal-level liability reform? It suggests a very real difference between areas like product liability and nationwide class actions—in which suits ordinarily cross state lines, and the majority of runaway verdicts are against out-of-state defendants—and more conventional kinds of tort litigation arising from car crashes, slip-and-falls, and medical misadventure, where cases are mostly filed against locally present defendants. As a rough rule of thumb, it’s worth presuming that most of the local suits do not externalize heavy costs across state lines and should accordingly be left alone by Congress unless it is itself vindicating some constitutional right or coordinating the functioning of some constitutionally authorized federal government activity.

That doesn’t mean federal policymakers are to be left with no role at all. For example, if Washington is paying for a large share of hospital stays, it may make sense as a cost containment measure for it to steer beneficiaries into lower-cost ways of resolving disputes over care quality, or even to ask beneficiaries as a condition of treatment to agree not to file certain suits at all. But that would require stepping back toward a more careful—and more Constitutionally appropriate—view of the federal role.

Tuesday Links

  • “Vouchers and tax credits differ from one another in important ways, and Pennsylvanians deserve to have their representatives consider them one at a time.”
  • “So, if the Supreme Court’s precedents defer to Congress’ assessments of its powers, but Congress is relying for ‘constitutional authority’ on the Supreme Court’s precedents, then NO ONE is actually looking at the Constitution itself to see if a bill is within Congress’ enumerated powers.”
  • “Carbon dioxide, thought to be a significant cause of the warming of surface temperature since the mid-1970s, is currently the respiration of the world’s economic civilization. Getting rid of it isn’t as simple as banning CFCs and switching to another refrigerant.”
  • “As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been ‘as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.’”
  • It’s the expenditures, stupid:

Righting the Balance

In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment cut an important tie in the Constitution between state legislatures and the Congress. In the original Constitution, states were empowered to choose the senators who would represent them in Congress. The result? Senators had an allegiance to the state government as much as the people of the state they represented.

Why does this matter? Well, today—with direct, popular election of senators—there isn’t much of anyone looking after state legislatures in Congress. Accordingly, the federal government continually tries to turn states into administrative outposts of the federal government rather than respecting them as the independent political powers they’re supposed to be.

In program after program, remote federal officials set policy and raise taxes, then require states to administer the programs. When things go a-mess, people don’t know whether it’s the federal government or the state government they need to talk to. Political accountability suffers, contributing to the big morass of government in the United States today.

Now, it wasn’t all sweetness and light before the Seventeenth Amendment rejiggered our governmental system, but it isn’t sweetness and light now either.

So yesterday, constitutional amendments were introduced in both the House and Senate to right the balance. House Joint Resolution 62 and Senate Joint Resolution 12 would propose an amendment to the Constitution giving states the right to repeal federal laws and regulations. Under the amendments, when two-thirds of the states ratify repeal of a federal mandate, it would come off the books.

The idea is to again right the balance between the states and the federal government. Most of its effect would be upstream: the Congress would be a lot more circumspect, knowing that the states could reject its laws if they went too far. But occasionally states would get a head of steam and lop out a federal law that they find disagreeable. The federal legislature would have to be a little more humble.

The federal government and its officials are pretty remote from the people compared to state legislators. Some way to right the balance would be good, whether it’s this specific idea, repeal of the Seventeeth Amendment, or some other. The “Madison Amendment” would work toward the same end by empowering states to propose constitutional amendments the way the Congress now does.

In this modern era of national transportation, high-speed communications, and global markets, many people believe that it’s natural for regulation to gravitate to the national level (often not considering that the logical end is global regulation). But technological change has not altered the rule that government closer to the people—or self-rule by the people themselves—is best. We pay a high price every day in this country for having cut a tendon in the constitutional structure with the Seventeenth Amendment and direct election of senators. It’s good to see efforts out there to right this balance.

Arizona Immigration Decision Underlines Need for Fundamental Reform

The legal battle over SB 1070 is far from over, so neither side should cheer or despair. The upshot of the Ninth Circuit’s splintered and highly technical opinion is merely that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining four provisions. The court could not and did not rule on the legislation’s ultimate constitutionality and, of course, SB 1070’s remaining provisions—the ten that weren’t challenged and the two on which Judge Bolton rejected the government’s argument—remain in effect.

But the legal machinations are only half the story. While I personally think that all or almost all of the Arizona law is constitutional, at least as written (abuses in application are always possible), it’s bad policy because it harms the state’s economy and misallocates law enforcement resources. But I also understand the frustration of many state governments, whose citizens are demanding relief from a broken immigration system that Congress has repeatedly failed to fix. Whether it’s stronger enforcement (Arizona) or liberalizing work permits (Utah), states should not be forced into the position of having to enact their own piecemeal immigration solutions while living within a system where the regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility. Congress has dropped the ball in not passing comprehensive immigration reform, despite facing a system that doesn’t work for anyone: not big business or small business, not rich Americans or poor ones, not skilled would-be immigrants or unskilled.

The federalism our Constitution establishes sometimes demands that the federal government act on certain issues. This is such a time and immigration is such an issue.