What is “States’ Rights”?

In Missouri, Proposition C passed on Tuesday.  Part of the language in the ballot initiative, which passed with 71 percent of the vote, went like this:

“Shall the Missouri Statutes be amended to….Deny the government authority to penalize citizens for refusing to purchase private health insurance or infringe upon the right to offer or accept direct payment for lawful healthcare services?”

With this, as well as the striking down of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 by a federal judge, The Political Panorama decided to look at the concept of states’ rights this week.


Being a Black man, I am not too keen on the whole states’ rights issue to begin with, but I will give it a go.

It seems that this whole flare-up about states’ rights is really a vehicle for anger at Obama administration policies.  I do not think that the people advocating for this truly seek a return to antebellum America, like the States’ Rights Democratic Party (or Dixiecrats) did in the run-up to the 1948 Presidential election.

That being said, this thought that the state of Missouri can overrule federal statute is quite comical.  The federal government has the right to regulate interstate commerce as per Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution.  This gives the federal government the right to do things such as regulate the purchase of goods such as health care.  In no way does the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as health care reform, violate that premise.

What this really boils down to is that people do not like President Obama’s politics.  That is fine; I did not like President Bush’s politics.  However, to think that passing a law that will directly lead to a federal lawsuit that Missouri will lose because their law has no standing is good idea when state government has already been stretched to the last dollar is truly absurd.  Even Gov. Janice Brewer (R-AZ) has admitted that SB 1070 has its flaws and that it may not do much to help secure the border, yet she is willing to waste state time and money appealing the permanent injunction against SB 1070 to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it will likely fail for the same reasons that Proposition C will fail.

Election have consequences, and the people of Missouri and Arizona are about to find them out.  States’ rights is a dated concept, and one that is not compatible in an economy that requires us to compete on an international level.


States’ rights is an interesting area of discussion, particularly in light of recent debate on whether the federal government can impose health care mandates on citizens without the consent of the states and whether states may impose their own immigration restrictions. Without weighing on either debate, it is worth noting that health care involves the public welfare and one cannot reject the federal government’s involvement there without also rejecting it in a vast array of other programs from Medicare to Social Security. I would expect they mark their government checks “return to sender.” The immigration issue can be examined through the lens of national security and defense and certainly there is a federal role. The question in that debate is whether there is a state role. But again, I will not dive into my personal views on either issue as that would require a much longer post and hours of additional research.

Generally, on states rights I tend to believe in deferring to state or local governments unless otherwise necessary. One of my favorite presidents, Thomas Jefferson, has been an influence on me. There are some areas where federal involvement is either necessary or reasonable.

Opponents of federal involvement often cite the 10th amendment as protecting rights for states that are not explicitly covered in the preceding amendments. The 10th amendment states: “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.”

What they forget is…the rest of the Constitution…as well as the fact that the 10th amendment does not state “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Bill of Rights” and instead focuses on the Constitution generally. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” Article I, Section 8 then goes on to explicitly list some fundamental powers reserved for the federal government. Clearly, defense and general Welfare are areas for federal government, the question is where to draw the line and that is left for interpretation. In my view, the federal government should only involve itself in providing for the general welfare in instances where equality and basic security are essential.

Too often, portions of the Constitution are used for convenience and often by people who have never read the language and instead regurgitate interpretations they hear in sound-bites. This goes for folks from across the spectrum. In an ideal world, people would read the Constitution, take a step back from their biases, and render an honest judgment. It may be that honest and well-intentioned people on all sides of an issue judge differently. It may be that different interpretations are reasonable. It may even be the Founding Fathers left some portions intentionally general so as to not bind the arms of future generations. Having an honest and respectful debate about issues such as states rights – including health care and immigration – is fundamental to democracy. On the other hand, incivility is the expression of insecurity and it only results in the same.


One Response to What is “States’ Rights”?

  1. Several excellent points are made in this oped, and it is a unique way of combining these two issues: Arizona’s immigration law and Missouri’s rejection of “mandated” healthcare coverage.

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