Category Archives: Federalism

Montana Firearms Freedom Act: Tilting At Windmills

While I laud any state trying to expand the freedom of its residents while simultaneously thumbing it’s nose at Washington, I can’t see this ending well:

On October 1, 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, the purpose of which was to regulate guns manufactured and kept within Montana state lines under a less restrictive regulatory regime than federal law provides. That same day, to ensure that Montanans could enjoy the benefits of this less restrictive state regulation, the Montana Shooting Sports Association filed a declaratory judgment claim in federal court.

The lawsuit’s importance is not limited to Montana, as seven other states have passed laws similar to the MFFA and 20 states have introduced such legislation. The goal here is to reinforce state regulatory authority over commerce that is by definition intrastate, to take back some of the ground occupied by modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, however, and MSSA appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Now on appeal, Cato has joined the Goldwater Institute to file an amicus brief supporting the MSSA and arguing that federal power does not preempt Montana’s ability to exercise its sovereign police powers to facilitate the exercise of individual rights protected by the Second and Ninth Amendments. More specifically, for federal law to trump the MFFA, the government must claim that the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses give it the power to regulate wholly intrastate manufacture, sale, and possession of guns, which MSSA argues is a state-specific market distinct from any related national one.

The general question here is whether modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence should be upended for this case. I believe it should, but I believe it won’t. The manufacture/sale/possession of firearms, while declared to be purely intrastate matters, would seem to “substantially affect” interstate commerce in the same way as the Court found in Wickard & Raich. On the question of whether the activity affects interstate commerce, I don’t think there can be any debate should current Commerce Clause jurisprudence hold. Under such jurisprudence, the Feds can reasonably claim that their more stringent requirements for firearms is Necessary to effectively regulate firearms in an interstate manner.

The actual brief (linked above) submitted by Goldwater & Cato draws more narrow inferences than the quoted text above, however. They recognize the current precedent of Wickard & Raich, but push a state sovereignty angle which seems much more substantial. The argument seems to be that in areas traditionally regulated at the state level, rather than the federal level, and where the state action is protecting individual liberty rather than restricting it (i.e. no 14th amendment privileges & immunities issues here), the level of scrutiny required by the Feds to override State law should be significantly higher. However, I suspect that such efforts will still either fall short, or require Supreme Court gymnastics to carve out a VERY narrow exception here (i.e. emanations & penumbra gymnastics).

It’s telling that one of the cases used as justification here is a case [Massachusetts v. Sebelius] where Massachusetts argued against the DOMA, on the grounds that Massachusetts more libertarian law upholding same-sex unions was infringed upon by DOMA. Effectively DOMA made it impossible for certain federally-funded programs which would traditionally go to “married” couples (or survivors thereof) could not be extended to same-sex couples. Because the regulation of marriage was traditionally within the purview of the States, not the Feds, and because DOMA violated the State’s liberty-protecting equal protection clause within the Massachusetts Constitution, for the Congress to intervene here was shown to be a violation of Massachusetts sovereignty.

However, I don’t think the Massachusetts case will be applicable here. While it is traditionally the purview of the States to regulate marriage, I don’t think it can be shown here that Massachusetts recognition of same-sex marriage substantially affects interstate commerce. The portion of DOMA that would have protected states from being forced to recognize same-sex marriages from other states was also not at issue. While it might be within the general police powers of the States to regulate some aspects of firearms manufacture/sale/ownership, I believe the Court would find the Commerce Clause precedent more binding than a finding of state sovereignty.

Another aspect of the state sovereignty argument appears in section I-A of the brief [p7-11]. Several points are raised:

  • That the Federal government cannot force a State legislature to legislate as directed by the Feds. In this case, I don’t believe the point applies, as the Feds are not demanding the States implement this regulation for them, but rather declaring such regulation to be a Federal matter to be decided by Congress rather than the States.
  • That the Federal government cannot commandeer State resources for the execution of federal regulation. Again, they are not forcing State police to enforce a more strict version of firearms regulation, and various drug decriminalization (and State medical marijuana initiatives) have created a situation where, while a State may [unconstitutionally] declare certain activities legal that the Federal government deems illegal, the States are within their rights to limit the use of State resources for investigation and prosecution of Federal crimes that they deem unwieldy. California can simultaneously hold the position that while medical marijuana is Federally illegal, the State does not consider it criminal, and thus the Feds themselves must enforce it if they so choose.
  • That the Federal government may not regulate/criminalize wholly intrastate activities with no economic impact. I think Commerce Clause jurisprudence would suggest that manufacture/sale/possession of weapons cannot be shown to be wholly intrastate, and it certainly includes economic impact.
  • Finally, that the Federal government may not subject State government employees to the dictates or working regulations of the Federal government — I think this one is so far removed from the case at hand to not warrant discussion.

To argue that this is a matter of state sovereignty is to argue that regulations of firearms has been a long-standing matter of the states themselves, and that for the Federal government to step in and demand more stringent regulation under Commerce Clause grounds requires such heightened scrutiny that cannot be supported here. However, Federal firearms laws have been in force since 1934, and while this is not proof that the regulation of firearm manufacture/sale/ownership should be a Federal matter, it certainly cuts some strength from the argument that this is purely a matter of state sovereignty.

It seems to me that this lawsuit is a bit of a hail mary. For it to succeed, we would need to see a sea-change in Commerce Clause jurisprudence (almost impossibly unlikely), or for the Brady Bill and/or National Firearms Act to be struck down as Unconstitutional (because both would infringe on state sovereignty). A greater likelihood, based on current conservative makeup of the court, would be a VERY narrowly worded decision involving some legal gymnastics. However, given the deference to Federal power I’ve seen from Roberts & Alito, and given that they would need such a narrow crafting to ensure that they wouldn’t open up whole hosts of other State sovereignty challenges to Federal law, I don’t see much likelihood there. Fundamentally the plaintiffs are pushing for a general large change in Federal/State interaction, one which I doubt the Supreme Court is ready to uphold.

Of course, that’s all assuming it ever makes it to the Supreme Court, itself an unlikely prospect.

While I have great sympathy for the plaintiffs here, I can’t say I’d be laying strong odds on their success.
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Controversial Organization Admonishes Soldiers and Peace Officers to Defend the Constitution

Every soldier and every police officer swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” but as a practical matter, what does this mean? What happens if the CO issues an order that violates the Constitution; is soldier or peace officer still required to carry the order out? What if the order in question comes from the President of the United States?

Stewart Rhodes, the founder of an organization established in 2009 called Oath Keepers, says that not only do soldiers and peace officers have a right to refuse to carry out an order that violates the U.S. Constitution but a sworn duty to disobey the order. Rhodes, graduate of Yale Law School, veteran, former firearms instructor, and former staffer for Congressman Ron Paul’s D.C. office, started Oath Keepers in response to what he perceived as an erosion of civil liberties that has escalated since 9/11.

Oath Keepers’ critics (particularly on the Left) believe the organization to be a Right wing “extremist” organization full of Birthers, Truthers, militia members, hate groups, and various other conspiracy theorists. In this article in Reason, Rhodes clears the air. Also, found in the organization’s bylaws:

Section 8.02
(a) No person who advocates, or has been or is a member, or associated with, any organization, formal or informal, that advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States or the violation of the Constitution thereof, shall be entitled to be a member or associate member.

(b) No person who advocates, or has been or is a member, or associated with, any organization, formal or informal, that advocates discrimination, violence, or hatred toward any person based upon their race, nationality, creed, or color, shall be entitled to be a member or associate member.

So what specifically makes Oath Keepers so controversial? My guess would be their list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey”:

1. We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.

2. We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people

3. We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to military tribunal.

4. We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

6. We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.

7. We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control.”

9. We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.

10.We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

Imagine how much freer our country would become if everyone in law enforcement and in the military adopted this creed and took their oaths seriously?

The saving grace of federalism

Were it not for our federalist system, the debate over Real ID would have been over long ago. Fortunately, it’s still going:

The political problem for the GOP committee chairmen is that the 2005 Real ID Act has proven to be anything but popular: legislatures of two dozen states have voted to reject its requirements, and in the Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures one chamber has done so.

That didn’t stop the House Republicans from saying in a letter this week to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that “any further extension of Real ID threatens the security of the United States.” Unless Homeland Security grants an extension, the law’s requirements take effect on May 11.

Hopefully this comes to a head, and hopefully the Republicans pushing this get an education in federalism. It’s going to come in mighty handy in resisting Obamacare.

South Dakota Lawmakers Confused By Federal/State Distinction — Embarrass Selves

[shakes head]

A group of South Dakota lawmakers has introduced a bill that would require almost everyone in their state to buy a gun once they turn 21.

Turns out it’s not a serious attempt. Rather, the lawmakers are trying to make a point about the new health care law — that an individual mandate is unconstitutional, whether it requires everyone to buy health insurance or, in South Dakota’s case, a firearm.

Rep. Hal Wick, one of five co-sponsors, told The Argus Leader newspaper that he expects the bill to fail.

“Do I or the other co-sponsors believe that the state of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms? Of course not. But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance,” he said.

The town of Kennesaw, GA mandates that every resident own a gun. The State of Massachusetts mandates that every resident purchase health insurance. Neither of those mandates caused a US Constitutional crisis. How in the world is the proposed South Dakota gun mandate in any different?

In truth, it’s not. We have long placed certain actions within the purview of State power that would be unconstitutional if done federally. It is only blatant misreading of the commerce clause that has allowed the Feds to infringe as far as they have.

Yet these dolts think that trying to enact a STATE mandate is somehow logically analogous to fighting a federal mandate. As if nobody had heard of MassCare or nobody had drawn up the suggestion that states have the power to require car insurance but may be* unconstitutional to mandate at the Federal level. They, by their words above, do not even seem to grasp the distinction between Article I, Section 8’s enumeration of powers at the Federal level and the fact that States are held to a different [lower] standard.

I can only see two reasons for this:

  1. They really ARE this dumb.
  2. This is all just one big publicity stunt.

The former suggests that the voters of South Dakota shouldn’t be trusted at the ballot any further, as they clearly can’t elect people capable of behaving responsibly in office. The latter suggests that the politicians just happen to believe that the voters of South Dakota [and writers for Fox News] are so dumb that they can’t tell the difference between State and Federal actions. Either way, it’s one more example that democracy doesn’t work.
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NYT: Myth-based editorializing

On Boxing Day, our self-styled intellectual overlords at the New York Times gave us a gift of epic proportions: a gob-stoppingly vapid and shallow editorial on the principal of federalism. Let the fun begin!

With public attention focused on taxes, the deficit, gays in the military and nuclear arms reduction, little attention has been paid, so far, to the Tea Party’s most far-reaching move to remake American governance.


The proposal is sweeping, expressing with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad. It would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved.

The chances of the proposal becoming the Constitution’s 28th Amendment are exceedingly low. But it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right. It also highlights the absence of a strong counterforce in American politics.

Well, so far, they haven’t strayed too far from the truth. Sure, they use the term “remake” where I would probably use “restore”, but the rest of the statement still stands. And, shock of shocks, the Times even gets the basic description of the Amendment right. But, alas, the truth quickly fades as the truthiness takes over.

What about those “anger-fueled, myth-based politics”? Well, the politics of limiting the Federal government are anger-filled, but this charge is leveled at us by the NYT to render our cause illegitimate. That’s where it rings false. We are angry because Washington is out of control. The list of abuses committed against freedom in the last twenty years needs no recitation here, but it culminated with a health-care reform law forced upon an American population that clearly and vociferously opposed it. Even today, job growth is stagnant in the face of a capricious and vengeful regulatory monster sitting on the banks of the Potomac ready to strike.

What about myth-based? The only things myth-based here is the notions of history held by the Times’ editorial board:

These flaws make the proposed amendment self-defeating, but they are far less significant than the mistaken vision of federalism on which it rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.

The statement above is so ridiculous that any further ridicule from me would only distract you from its ridiculousness. I will, instead, only point out that if the New York Times’ editorial board not collectively slept through its eighth-grade civics classes, it would know that it just described the United States from its founding until the end of the Civil War.

Here, the NYT gets uncomfortably close to the truth, and so has to go scurrying back to the mythical founding of the United States it holds so dear:

The error that matters most here is about the Constitution’s history. America’s fundamental law holds competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it. But the government the Constitution shaped was founded to create a sum greater than the parts, to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people.

The NYT board is deliberately ignoring the fact that the Barnett amendment, albeit crude, is a manifestation of the Founders’ belief that the States themselves should have representation in the Federal government. Before the 17th Amendment, it was the intent of the Constitution that the Senate represent the States, not the people (who were represented in the House). In reaction to the national trauma of the Civil War, the next half century featured a shift of power from the States to the Federal government.

The merits of the shift from a balance between the States and the Federal government to a dominant Federal government are open to debate, especially as we are seeing the faults of the dominant Federal government ever more clearly. However, the New York Times does not approach the issue from this reasonable position. Instead, they try to rewrite history to claim that it has always been this way.

This begs the question of why a once-august journalistic institution has devolved into a pathetic imitation of the Ministry of Truth. For that, we shall let the Times speak for itself:

In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past.

This nation has always yearned for more government. Soon enough, they will be saying we have always been at war with Eastasia. Remember, the editorial board of the New York Times are siding with the government against you, and are making the truth a sacrificial lamb in the process.

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