LLOYD GRAY: We’ve been over this states’ rights territory before

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Knowledge of our own history is not generally a strength of Americans, and occasionally a bit of historical perspective is important in putting present-day issues in the proper context.
Consternation over passage of health care legislation in Congress has produced a backlash that has taken various forms. Many states are challenging the legislation’s constitutionality in court, and although their prospects for success are questionable, it’s the proper role of the federal courts to review legislation to ensure that it passes constitutional muster.
But another response to the bill’s provision that will eventually require Americans to buy health insurance is the effort in many states to pass laws exempting their citizens from that mandate. This route has no basis in constitutional law.
While the Mississippi Legislature hasn’t passed such a law, two legislators did file an initiative with the secretary of state’s office last week. Reps. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, and Steven Palazzo, R-Biloxi, want to gather signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 2011, asking Mississippi voters to say whether they want to come under the mandate or not.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it’s useful to remind ourselves that the issue of federal supremacy over the states was settled rather decisively with the conclusion of that war. States were not fully sovereign entities connected in a loose confederation called the United States, as southern leaders argued; they were part of a federal system in a Union which could not be dissolved and in which the central government’s authority trumped the states.
Southerners used words like “interposition” and “nullification” in the run-up to the Civil War to describe constitutional theories they asserted gave states the power to reject federal laws they didn’t like. Those arguments didn’t stand.
They were trotted out a hundred years later when the South again tested the idea that states could ignore federal laws or judicial decisions. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett was among the most notorious of southern segregationists who insisted that states could ignore federal authority if they disagreed with it or considered it unconstitutional.
“States’ rights and constitutional government” was Barnett’s battle cry against racial integration of Mississippi’s public schools and universities. The tragic result was the anti-integration battle of Ole Miss in 1962, or “An American Insurrection,” the title of William Doyle’s 2001 book on the crisis. The university and the state are still recovering from that attempt to revive what Doyle described as a “thoroughly discredited states’ rights concept.”
Two years later when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting businesses from refusing service to individuals because of race, opponents claimed it was an unconstitutional infringement on personal freedom, decried “federal tyranny,” and vowed not to obey the law. But the act stood, and eventually the idea that states could refuse to obey federal law ran out of steam – unfortunately not before considerable acrimony and violence.
Now the idea is with us again. If the initiative proposed by the two legislators gets enough signatures to go on the ballot in 2011, its passage would mean absolutely nothing other than possibly another of Mississippi’s futile and expensive court battles against federal authority.
Mississippians, legislators or citizens, can’t simply vote themselves out from under a federal law. Our system doesn’t work that way, and it’s taken the two most divisive and bloody periods in our domestic history to underscore that fact.
If the states’ court challenge to the health care law – the proper constitutional vehicle – fails, opponents in this state and others have the recourse of working to elect people to Congress who will vote to repeal it. That’s what our system provides.
The legislators’ initiative or any legislation that may follow to exclude Mississippi from components of the law are, to put it generously, misguided exercises in futility. A less generous assessment would describe them as political grandstanding.
In either case, the result will be the same: Once again, federal law will trump state law. If we knew history, we would know that outcome from the start.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.