Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey writes in praise of states' rights and the 10th Amendment.
News: A Seattle Democrat praises the 10th Amendment.
“It might not appear there are large numbers of Seattle Democrats who share a passion with the Republicans about the role, value and integrity of the 10th Amendment,” wrote State Rep. Reuven Carlyle July 27 on his blog. “I wish my party held a more nuanced view of the fundamental constitutional issue itself.”
The 10th is the states’ rights amendment. It is the part of the Bill of Rights that limits the federal government to the powers given to it in the Constitution, with all other powers retained by the states or the people.
Praising the 10th Amendment has become a Republican thing, and particularly a tea party thing. Democrats are wary of it, partly because in the 1960s “states’ rights” was used by white Southerners to argue against civil-rights laws. But states’ rights are useful to both political sides.
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For the left, consider same-sex marriage. Had marriage been federalized, the number of civil-union states would be zero. Without states’ rights, the number of death-penalty states would be 50 and the number of medical-marijuana states would be zero.
States’ rights allow change to happen where change is wanted — and to build momentum.
For the right, the current issue is “Obamacare.” States may require the purchase of private insurance, but the lawsuit filed by Washington’s Rob McKenna and 25 other state attorneys general argues that the federal government cannot. Their appeals court victory last week would not have happened without the 10th Amendment.
Properly enforced, the 10th Amendment should reserve a large territory to the states, including such things as school curricula, the drinking age, blood-alcohol levels, speed limits, light bulbs and the amount of water in a toilet tank. (Abortion is different, because the Supreme Court ruled that it is a right retained by the people.)
Neither party has taken the 10th Amendment seriously when in power. In his blog, Carlyle noted that the Republicans “found it impossible” not to bully the states. George W. Bush’s Justice Department did it over medical marijuana. It also tried to snuff out Oregon’s “right to die” law.
The tactic most commonly used to avoid the 10th Amendment is to invoke the Constitution’s commerce clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate “commerce … among the states.”
Over the years, “interstate commerce” has been stuck like a Post-it on anything and everything. Take marijuana. What if you’re a patient, and you grow it for yourself? How could that be interstate commerce? Ah — but you might sell it, and if enough sick people did the same, it might affect interstate commerce.
Six members of the Supreme Court — including all the liberals — bought that far-fetched argument.
Here’s another. Incandescent light bulbs waste electricity, and electricity affects interstate commerce. Therefore the federal government can ban incandescent light bulbs.
On and on.
“I cringe when I see virtually every bill passed by Congress grasp onto the commerce clause as rationalization and justification,” Carlyle wrote. “States are the laboratories of innovation, and we must always hold that title.”
States’ rights are about allowing Washington to be different from Idaho, and from New York. It is good to see that principle recognized, especially by a Seattle Democrat.
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org