by Derek Sheriff
While speaking to a large crowd of over a thousand people on the campus of Arizona State University last December, Congressman Ron Paul mentioned one thing that might come about as the result of the federal government habitually ignoring the Constitution: Nullification.
About five minutes into the video segment which you’ll find below, he said, “There’s not much attention paid to the Constitution in Washington. There’s not much attention paid to it by our executive branch of government. And we don’t get much protection from our courts. So one thing that might finally happen from this if the people finally feel so frustrated that they can’t get the results out of Washington — They’re going to start thinking about options. They might start thinking about nullification and a few things like that.”
As someone who attended that rally and was doing my best to represent my state’s chapter of The Tenth Amendment Center, I know I cheered very loudly and was very pleased when the rest of the crowd applauded enthusiastically.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of state nullification, it was the idea expressed by then sitting vice president, Thomas Jefferson, when he authored what came to be called the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. The resolutions made the case that the federal government is a creature of the states and that states have the authority to judge the constitutionality of the federal government’s laws and decrees. He also argued that states should refuse to enforce laws which they deemed unconstitutional.
James Madison wrote a similar resolution for Virginia that same year, in which he asserted that whenever the federal government exceeds its constitutional limits and begins to oppress the citizens of a state, that state’s legislature is duty bound to interpose its power to prevent the federal government from victimizing its people. Very similar to Jefferson’s concept of nullification, Madison’s doctrine of interposition differed in some small but important ways.
These two documents together came to be known as The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (or Resolves), of 1798. Both were written in response to the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts, and the phrase, “Principles of ‘98″ became shorthand for nullification and / or interposition. Over time, “The Principles of ‘98″ would be invoked by many other states, many times for a variety of issues.
Getting back to Ron Paul’s speech in December at ASU, Congressman Paul qualified his prediction about the revival of nullification by saying the following:
“But my suspicion is that there will never be official nullification or secession, but if the [federal] government continues to fail, and they can’t deliver anything..checks bounce..that we will be forced to take care of ourselves. And we will be forced to almost ignore everything they do.”
Less than a week after the speech I attended at ASU, Congressman Paul was interviewed by Mike Church on his radio show. When Mike asked him what his thoughts were on nullification, Ron Paul responded by saying:
“I think it’s a great idea. It was never really successful in our history. But I think it’s going to grow in importance. And I think it’s going to grow because the government, the federal government will be seen as inept and ineffective. And I think it’ll almost be de facto in the sense that the states will eventually just ignore some of the mandates.”
Here I would like to pause for a moment and point out that I am not usually in the business of disagreeing with Congressman Ron Paul. I would hardly need one hand to count the number of times that I have actually disagreed with him on any issue of real substance. I am a great admirer and supporter of Congressman Paul, who is undoubtedly very supportive of the idea of state nullification, even if he has doubted its efficacy in the past. However, in spite of all this, I would like to make two observations.
First, nullification has, in fact, been somewhat successful in the past and more recently as well. Second, as President Obama loves to say, “Let me be clear”: “Official” nullification has ALREADY HAPPENED.
Before I explain why “official” nullification has already happened, let me briefly give some examples of what nullification is NOT.
Nullification is not secession or insurrection, but neither is it unconditional or unlimited submission. Nullification is not something that requires any decision, statement or action from any branch of the federal government. Nullification is not the result of obtaining a favorable court ruling. Nullification is not the petitioning of the federal government to start doing or to stop doing anything. Nullification doesn’t depend on any federal law being repealed. Nullification does not require permission from any person or institution outside of one’s own state.
So just what IS “official” nullification you might be asking?
Nullification begins with a decision made in your state legislature to resist a federal law deemed to be unconstitutional. It usually involves a bill, which is passed by both houses and is signed by your governor. In some cases, it might be approved by the voters of your state directly, in a referendum. It may change your state’s statutory law or it might even amend your state constitution. It is a refusal on the part of your state government to cooperate with, or enforce any federal law it deems to be unconstitutional.
Nullification carries with it the force of state law. It cannot be legally repealed by Congress without amending the US Constitution. It cannot be lawfully abolished by an executive order. It cannot be overruled by the Supreme Court. It is the people of a state asserting their constitutional rights by acting as a political society in their highest sovereign capacity. It is the moderate, middle way that wisely avoids harsh remedies like secession on the one hand and slavish, unlimited submission on the other. It is the constitutional remedy for unconstitutional federal laws.
With the exception of a Constitutional amendment, the federal government cannot oppose (except perhaps rhetorically), a state’s decision to nullify an unconstitutional federal law without resorting to extra-legal measures. But such measures would more than likely backfire, since most Americans still affirm that might does not make right.
There is no question as to whether or when “official” nullification will happen: It has ALREADY HAPPENED. In fact, not only has it happened recently, it has been a success! Perhaps this is why the federal government hopes you will never hear about it. According to the Tenth Amendment Center:
“25 states over the past 2 years have passed resolutions and binding laws denouncing and refusing to implement the Bush-era law [REAL ID Act]..While the law is still on the books in D.C., its implementation has been “delayed” numerous times in response to this massive state resistance, and in practice, is virtually null and void.”
But that’s not all; another example of “official” nullification has occurred in the form of an unlikely states’ rights ally: Medical marijuana.
There was a time when the federal government took the Constitution seriously enough that Congress did what is required in order to enact a nationwide ban on a substance. Even though the experiment would eventually be seen by most Americans as a mistake and a failure, the 18th Amendment was passed and the era known as “Prohibition” began. Four years later, it was repealed.
When it came to marijuana prohibition, however, the feds had another trick up their sleeve. All three branches of the federal government would agree on a very novel, liberal interpretation of the “commerce clause” which would allow them to regulate virtually any substance, including marijuana, even though there’s supposedly no “legal” commerce in the plant. Since that time, the federal government has managed to claim, with a straight face, as it were, that a plant grown in your back yard, never sold, and never leaving your property, is somehow able to be completely banned by the federal government under the interstate “commerce clause.” The only problem with their claim is that the states just aren’t buying it.
Fourteen states have actively refused to comply with federal laws on marijuana, and it looks as if six more are about to join the effort. In a recent blog post, Mark Kreslins observes:
“..medical marijuana now poses a real threat to the enforcement power of the Federal Government. With state after state defying Washington DC over this issue..Washington DC has a choice to make; enforce their laws based on a very liberal interpretation of the Commerce Clause by sending thousands of DEA agents into all fifty states…or…look the other way. Thus far, they’ve chosen to look the other way for if they create the appearance of a Federal takeover of police powers in the States, they will fully expose their extra-constitutional behavior and provoke a direct confrontation with the States who will use the 10th Amendment (hopefully) to defend their prerogatives.”
Whatever your view may be regarding marijunana use, medical or otherwise, one thing is apparent: “Official” nullification has happened, and it works! Washington will have to get used to it.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether in addition to “officially” nullifying unconstitutional federal laws, state governments will be willing to use their power to “officially” interpose themselves between agents of the federal government and the people of their state. In the unlikely event that one or more branches of the federal government decides to take extra-legal measures to punish residents of a state for exercising their constitutional rights in defiance of unconstitutional federal laws, will that state’s government have the courage to hamper or even neutralize such extra-legal measures?
There are a whole host of peaceful actions that a state government can adopt if that day comes or appears to be just over the horizon. These measures range from county sheriffs requiring that federal agents receive written permission from the sheriff before acting in their county, to setting up a Federal Tax escrow account, which could potentially de-fund unconstitutional federal activities by requiring that all federal taxes come first to the state’s Department of Revenue.
Besides state interposition, the other thing Washington would have to consider, is whether enough of their agents would actually obey orders to punish people for exercising their constitutional rights. There is a significant chance that enough of them would either publicly or privately decide in advance to ignore such orders. As the probability of this increases, it becomes more likely that Washington will not risk overplaying its hand. The reality is that Washington just doesn’t have the manpower to enforce all their unconstitutional laws if enough states choose to defy them.
Of course, it all depends on the people of the several states: ordinary people like you and I. Although I’ve discovered that there are more elected representatives at the state level who are committed to acting in a courageous and principled manner than I ever dared hope, most of their peers lack such a brave commitment. Most of them will stick their head in the sand or sit on the fence until they determine which way the wind is blowing. And so it’s our opinion, not the opinion of the American people in aggregate, but our opinion as citizens of our respective states, that will influence the decision of our state representatives to either stand tall or to kneel down and knuckle under.
But do you even know the men and women who represent you? I’m not talking about those who represent you in Washington, but rather in Phoenix, Salem, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Denver, Austin, Oklahoma City, Tallahassee, Atlanta, Nashville, Richmond, Harrisburg, Indianapolis, Columbus and Springfield.
For any of you who really want to preserve our union, and at the same time retain your rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, I can’t say it any better than 2008 presidential nominee of the Constitution Party, Chuck Baldwin:
“..it is absolutely obligatory that freedom-minded Americans refocus their attention to electing State legislators, governors, judges and sheriffs who will fearlessly defend their God-given liberties..as plainly and emphatically as I know how to say it, I am telling you: ONLY THE STATES CAN DEFEND OUR LIBERTY NOW! ..this reality means we will have to completely readjust our thinking and priorities.”
Derek Sheriff is an ex-Green Beret turned activist and the State Chapter Coordinator for the Arizona Tenth Amendment Center.