15 Conservative State Legislatures Trying to Upend the Constitution (And the Right-Wing Ideologues That Fuel Their Fringe Ideas)
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In March, the Arizona State Senate passed a law that cut, in dramatic fashion, to the heart of a long-running debate in American history: What is the proper power dynamic between the states and the federal center? In the extremist style that has come to typify Arizona's state legislature under the influence of Republican Senate President Russell Pearce, S.B. 1433 came down with force on the side of "states' rights." The bill proposed nothing less than the creation of a 12-person body tasked with studying federal laws and nullifying any and all of those it deemed unconstitutional.
In essence, it was an attempted declaration of independence from Washington and a direct challenge to the United States Constitution, which explicitly states that laws made by the federal government and backed by the Supreme Court are "supreme."
S.B. 1433, which ultimately did not make it out of the Senate, was not the only bill of its kind to bubble up in legislatures across the country in the wake of the 2010 midterms. It exemplified a spate of challenges to federal power that illustrate how the Tea Party-fueled GOP surge of 2010 is a story playing out in every corner of the country. From Appalachia to Alaska, state lawmakers have introduced bills that challenge the authority of the federal government to execute powers granted by the Constitution. These bills target all three branches of federal power, often in language that reveals the influence of radical-right ideologues from bygone times. While the sponsors of the bills routinely point to last year's health care reform bill as the impetus for their legislation, the scope of their targets manifest a deep and longstanding animus against most of the landmark federal legislation of the modern era—from environmental protection, to reproductive rights, to the very idea of state-backed paper currency. Consider:
Virginia lawmakers have proposed the creation of an independent state currency, premised on "the destruction of the Federal Reserve System."
In Georgia, another currency bill would require banks to accept gold or silver as legal tender, thus overriding federal monetary regulations.
A group of Kentucky Republicans introduced a law exempting the state from the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency. Montana's "Sheriffs First Act," would give local sheriff's veto power over any federal law enforcement activity in their counties; those who failed to comply would face jail.
So-called "birther bills"—inspired by far-right suspicions about President Obama's country of birth and requiring new proofs of citizenship for candidates—have been introduced in a dozen states, including the moderate New England state of Maine.
Many of these same states have also seen the introduction of harsh immigration bills modeled on Arizona's controversial S.B. 1070, which has been held up in the courts since the Obama Administration's Department of Justice sued to stop its enforcement last year.
Experts doubt the current bills will have much practical impact or leave a long-term legacy.
"These bills are nothing but symbolic grandstanding for conservative constituents," says Erwin Chemerinksy, dean of the Law School at the University of California at Irvine. "States cannot violate federal law or authorize the violation of federal law. The laws are clearly unconstitutional, but that does not keep conservative politicians from introducing them."
The bible for many of the Republican legislators sponsoring states'-rights bills is Thomas Woods' Nullification: How to End Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Among Woods' main sources is the 1957 states' rights manifesto, The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia, by James L. Kilkpatrick, a chief ideologist of southern resistance during the civil rights movement.