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August 19, 2010

Counterpoint: Civil Disobedience Or Not, Nullification Is Unconstitutional

by Doug Mataconis

In his post that started this debate, Brad Warbiany makes this point about the idea that the individual states have the power, or at least the right, to make declarations as to the Constitutionality of Federal laws:

Nullification is the civil disobedience of Federalism. Is it legal? No. After all, the Supremacy Clause and judicial review see to that. But it wasn’t legal for Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus, or for black students to sit at a “Whites-only” counter at Woolworth’s. Sometimes, the law is a ass. Sometimes, you need to disobey to make a point.


Viewed this way, nullification is less about disobedience as it is about changing policy. Nullification is a tactic in a wider strategy. It is a way to register unhappiness with federal dictates without necessarily going full-bore and threatening secession. Further, it is a way to demonstrate, by direct example, that changes in policy are preferable to the way Washington demands.

Taking this view of nullification, I don’t necessarily disagree with Brad on the value of state’s, and their citizens, weighing in on what they believe to be a usurpation of Federal power. After all, this is something that has a long and noble history in America. When President John Adams persuaded Congress to pass The Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson, who at that point was serving as Adams’s Vice-President, and James Madison worked together to draft and ensure the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were resolutions passed by the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky to condemn laws which Adams’s opponents viewed as both unconstitutional and near-dictatorial.

The resolutions — which you can read here, here, and here — are interesting in themselves because they contain one of the first post-ratifications statements by American leaders of what they believe the Constitution to mean, as this excerpt from the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 shows wonderfully:

2. Resolved, That the Constitution of the United States having delegated to Congress a power to punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the laws of nations, and no other crimes, whatsoever; and it being true, as a general principle, and one of the amendments to the Constitution having also declared, that “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,”—therefore, also, the same act of Congress, passed on the 14th day of July, 1798, and entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States;’” as also the act passed by them on the 27th day of June, 1798, entitled “An Act to punish Frauds committed on the Bank of the United States,” (and all other their acts which assume to create, define, or punish crimes other than those so enumerated in the Constitution,) are altogether void, and of no force; and that the power to create, define, and punish, such other crimes is reserved, and of right appertains, solely and exclusively, to the respective states, each within its own territory.

3. Resolved, That it is true, as a general principle, and is also expressly declared by one of the amendments to the Constitution, that “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;” and that, no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, being delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, and were reserved to the states, or the people; that thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech, and of the press, may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use, should be tolerated rather than the use be destroyed; and thus also they guarded against all abridgment, by the United States, of the freedom of religious principles and exercises, and retained to themselves the right of protecting the same, as this, stated by a law passed on the general demand of its citizens, had already protected them from all human restraint or interference; and that, in addition to this general principle and express declaration, another and more special provision has been made by one of the amendments to the Constitution, which expressly declares, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” thereby guarding, in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, insomuch that whatever violated either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others,—and that libels, falsehood, and defamation, equally with heresy and false religion, are withheld from the cognizance of federal tribunals. That therefore the act of Congress of the United States, passed on the 14th of July, 1798, entitled “An Act in Addition to the Act entitled ‘An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States,’” which does abridge the freedom of the press, is not law, but is altogether void, and of no force.

That’s mighty strong language. Stronger, some would say, than the laws that a few states have passed since March challenging the Federal Government’s authority to require Americans to purchase health insurance. However, it’s worth noting what Madison and Jefferson were not doing, because as Madison acknowledged in his defense of the resolutions, there is no Constitutional authority granted to the states that would allow them to nullify a Federal law:

Nor can the declarations of either [the citizens or the legislature of Virginia], whether affirming or denying the constitutionality of measures of the Federal Government, or whether made before or after judicial decisions thereon, be deemed, in any point of view, an assumption of the office of the judge. The declarations, in such cases, are expressions of opinion, unaccompanied with any other effect than what they may produce on opinion, by exciting reflection. The expositions of the judiciary, on the other hand, are carried into immediate effect by force. The former may lead to a change in the legislative expression of the general will; possibly to a change in the opinion of the judiciary; the latter enforces the general will, whilst that will and that opinion continue unchanged.

And if there be no impropriety in declaring the unconstitutionality of proceedings in the Federal Government, where can be the impropriety of communicating the declaration to other states, and inviting their concurrence in a like declaration? What is allowable for one, must be allowable for all; and a free communication among the states, where the Constitution imposes no restraint, is as allowable among the state governments as among other public bodies or private citizens. This consideration derives a weight, that cannot be denied to it, from the relation of the state legislatures to the federal legislature, as the immediate constituents of one of its branches. . . .

Considering that this was written by a man who was both one of the principle authors of the Constitution and one of the authors of the Resolutions, it seems to me that it is fairly persuasive evidence that, whatever else the Tenth Amendment might mean, the Founders never intended to give the individual states the power to nullify state laws.

So, basically, that leaves “nullification” (and personally I don’t like the word because of it’s historical associations with secessionists and segregationists) in the category that Brad would put it; a method by which the citizens can, through their state legislatures and the Courts if necessary, petition Congress for a redress of grievances.

However, when nullification is discussed today, it isn’t the “civil disobedience” variety that Brad favors that’s being advocated. In his new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century Thomas Woods essentially argues for a full-throated right on the part of the states to ignore Federal laws if they choose to do so:

Nullification is Thomas Jefferson’s idea, articulated most clearly in his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, that if the federal government passes a law that reaches beyond the powers delegated by the states, the states should refuse to enforce it. Jefferson believed that if the federal government is allowed to hold a monopoly on determining what its powers are, we have no right to be surprised when it keeps discovering new ones. If they violate the Constitution, we are “duty bound to resist,” to quote James Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798.

Now this is a vast simplification of the argument that Woods makes, you can get a better idea of what he means in this interview:

I have yet to read Woods’ book, and still want to, but it’s fairly clear that his argument suffers from the fact that there just isn’t any historical support for his idea that the Constitution grants states the right to essentially break Federal law by ignoring it if they believe that it is unconstitutional. Any reliance on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, for example, is easily rebutted by Madison’s own admission that the Resolutions were expressions of opinion rather than something that had the force of law.

History after the Resolutions doesn’t really provide any support for Woods’ argument either. The most notable example came during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina purported to declare a Federal import tariff unconstitutional and took steps to prevent Federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods entering through the Port of Charleston. Though the matter was resolved, it set the nation down a road toward secession that resulted in the bloodiest war in American history. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ten Southern states used the doctrine of nullification, and the related concept of interposition, to attempt to resist efforts desegregate school and refuse to enforce the Court’s decision. In Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court held that such efforts were unconstitutional:

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the “supreme Law of the Land.” In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177, that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. It follows that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land, and Art. VI of the Constitution makes it of binding effect on the States “any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Every state legislator and executive and judicial officer is solemnly committed by oath taken pursuant to Art. VI, cl. 3, “to support this Constitution.” Chief Justice Taney, speaking for a unanimous Court in 1859, said that this requirement reflected the framers’ “anxiety to preserve it [the Constitution] in full force, in all its powers, and to guard against resistance to or evasion of its authority, on the part of a State . . . .” Ableman v. Booth, 21 How. 506, 524.

No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his undertaking to support it. Chief Justice Marshall spoke for a unanimous Court in saying that: “If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery . . . .” United States v. Peters, 5 Cranch 115, 136. A Governor who asserts a [358 U.S. 1, 19] power to nullify a federal court order is similarly restrained. If he had such power, said Chief Justice Hughes, in 1932, also for a unanimous Court, “it is manifest that the fiat of a state Governor, and not the Constitution of the United States, would be the supreme law of the land; that the restrictions of the Federal Constitution upon the exercise of state power would be but impotent phrases . . . .” Sterling v. Constantin, 287 U.S. 378, 397 -398.

In other words, if nullification of the type Woods advances actually existed, we would no longer live in a Federal system, but in something more closely resembling the Articles of Confederation. Since the Constitution was written to replace the Articles, it’s clear that the Founders never intended to give the states the power to decide for themselves what the Constitution means and to randomly choose to ignore Federal laws based on that interpretation. Therefore, Woods’ nullification is little more than a professorial fantasy.

In closing, I don’t necessarily object to the kind of “civil disobedience” nullification that Brad favors. Let’s just not pretend it has the force of law.

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1 Comment

  1. SNIP: ” … but it’s fairly clear that his argument suffers from the fact that there just isn’t any historical support for his idea that the Constitution grants states the right to essentially break Federal law by ignoring it if they believe that it is unconstitutional.”

    This is where you – like so many – go wrong. The Constitution doesn’t “grant” anything to the states or to the people. It *gurantees* rights that *pre-exist* the Constitution, i.e., those that exist by divine right or by natural law, whichever you prefer.

    The only entity to whom the Constitution “grants” anything is the *federal government itself*, which is only logical because the Constituton CREATES the federal government. The state governments existed before it ever came into being, as did, of course, the people.

    The power to nullify devolves from the same principle you quote: that an unconstitutional act is not a law. (See also Norton v. Shelby County, 118 US 425) If it’s not law, it can be ignored regardless of what the Supreme Court says. If that were not so, the Supreme Court would be the sole arbiter of the Constitution – and therefore would be a tyrant, but although it did arrogate that power to itself with some measure of success (see Marbury v. Madison), it is clear that the Constitution itself never gave the Supreme Court that power.

    All you have is essentially an argument that people should follow Madison’s opinion (for that is all what you have quoted is) more than Jefferson’s. If there’s anything that’s “unconstitutional” here, then it’s Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison itself, for that ultimate power is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. It was usurped from the peole and the state by Marshall and his colleagues in the court. What was wrongly usurped can rightfully be taken back.

    The Constitution expressly denies the states a number of things – because the states decided to give them up and delegate them to the federal government. The right of Nullification is not among those.

    In the end, my friend, you expose yourself as a statist (in the modern sense, not in the sense of being pro states’ rights).

    Comment by Alex Wallenwein — August 20, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

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