By editorial board • 

Federal powers known to ignore states’ rights

Is the Trump administration about to bring the long arm of the law to bear against the recreational marijuana industry, newly decriminalized in eight states, but still illegal on the federal level?

Press Secretary Sean Spicer threw down the gauntlet in recent comments. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, dubbed a “drug war dinosaur” during his reign as senior senator from Alabama, quickly followed with a more explicit and menacing warning.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown downplayed the threat, after joining other governors in a private breakfast meeting with the new president. She said marijuana never came up, but he stood by his campaign’s “states’ rights” mantra.

Pardon us for finding that comment less than compelling.

History shows us federally ascendant forces have always embraced federal supremacy, relegating the states’ rights crumbs to their vanquished foes. And administration forces are poised to soon add judicial control to the executive and legislative control they already enjoy.

What’s more, seven of the eight states hug the coastline that voted heavily for Clinton. Except for pioneering Colorado, none lie in the great expanse of Midwest and South that carried Trump to victory.

The Articles of Confederation binding the original 13 colonies into loose and uneasy alliance followed the states’ rights model. But it proved so weak as to be virtually unworkable.

The framers of the Constitution reacted by giving the federal government much greater reach, capping that effort with Article VI, the supremacy clause, which declared federal law the supreme law of the land. When opposition forces fought back, they pushed through a Bill of Rights drafted by James Madison, the 10th of which read, “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.”

Madison actually drafted a much longer list of proposed rights. The House adopted 17 and the Senate 12, but the states only ratified 10.

When slavery threatened to tear the fledgling union asunder in the 1800s, southern states pushed to enshrine slavery in federal law, and failing that, to get the federal government to force the return of slaves fleeing north. Only when that failed as well did they begin to rally around the slogan of states’ rights, which included, they argued, the right to secede.

When South Carolina became the first to secede, however, it cited federal refusal to impose on northern states a provision they found morally odious. So much for states’ rights.

And when the breakaway South created the Confederacy, it concentrated power in its capital city of Richmond. Federal protection of “negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate states,” became the high point in an array of mandates that member states were given no power to oppose.

Forces not holding sway federally have long clamored for recognition of states’ rights on racial, social and government lands issues. But given the keys to the Capitol, will they not seek to impose their views uniformly across the land?

Be forewarned, governor. The sweep of history certainly suggests so.


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