States’ rights should only be permitted in service of their citizens 

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While states’ rights are important, they must be used to fully express the wills of those represented.   Photo in the public domain.

While states’ rights are important, they must be used to fully express the wills of those represented.

Photo in the public domain.

It is a peculiar fact that states’ rights are always discussed when a state is attempting to justify establish the supremacy of their own state, especially when such supremacy is used as an argument to violate federal law. This is especially common when such laws subvert states’ rights, turning them from a means of ensuring the welfare of the citizens to a cudgel to enforce the prejudices of those trusted to execute the fulfillment of the rights of the citizens of the state.  For example, the South was violating the rights of northern states when they forced them to return kidnapped slaves in the 1850s. https://usconstitution.net/fslave.html 

Further examples of abusing sovereignty to imply supremacy are the suits between states concerning borders or control of watersheds, usually with the states bringing the case asserting they possess a more legitimate right to those resources than the state they are bringing the case against. This demonstrates the troubling implicit “my” hiding before the words “states’ rights” which tends to be more accurately “my state’s rights.”  https://www.oyez.org/cases/1789-1850/22us1

https://www.nytimes.com/1998/05/27/nyregion/ellis-island-verdict-ruling-high-court-gives-new-jersey-most-ellis-island.html

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1997/120_orig 

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/256/296/

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/31/323/  

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/289/593/

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/217/1/ 

https://www.michigan.gov/dmva/0,4569,7-126-2360_3003_3009-16934–,00.html

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/447/125/

https://archive.nytimes.com/

www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/05/11/11climatewire-the-screw-nevada-bill-and-how-it-stymied-us-12208.htm 

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/373/546/ 
 

Despite the self-centered nature of most of these actions, one can argue the validity of their protests for states’ rights. States’ rights merely refer to those powers a state must possess in order to be a state. These rights are not held by individuals but are a collective right of the state’s inhabitants which the state administers or such powers as are necessary and proper to fulfill those rights. Take the Colorado River Water Compact. This is an agreement on the states through which the Colorado River flows, as well as the country of Mexico, about how much of the river’s flow is permissible for each state to extract from the river. If one assumes that the citizens of the state possesses a need for water that must be collectively allocated to prevent the tragedy of the commons from depriving people in the state of that resource. If one assumes citizens have a right to be aware of the jurisdiction to which they are subject, established territorial boundaries are an implied right for the state to possess. https://www.npr.org/2015/06/25/417430662/how-a-historical-blunder-helped-create-the-water-crisis-in-the-west https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/documents/981812wr.pdf 

https://www.aspentimes.com/news/wasting-water-in-arid-western-colorado/ 

As one can see from the preceding paragraph by, “states’ rights” does not mean an ability to ignore the federal government. I mean a set of powers necessary and proper for the execution of the state’s constitution  These include the entitlement to control watersheds within the state, block projects which are detrimental to the health of the citizens of the state — such as the recent Californian air quality litigation, the ability to run elections for state elected offices and ballot initiatives, and the right to have established stable boundaries. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/01/climate/california-sues-trump-administration.html 

These rights are uncontroversial and thus rarely discussed when the topic of state’s rights is broached. The Constitution explicitly states that in conflicts between Federal law and state law the federal takes precedence and specifically limits the states in Article 1 Section 10. However, it does guarantee states’ rights as I define them in Article IV, the parts of Article V which restrict creation of states and Senate allocation, and the Eleventh Amendment which grants them immunity from being defendants in cases, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articleiv .  

https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/amendment-11/state-sovereign-immunity#fn142amd11 Yet such an interpretation does not permit states to abuse their citizens or claim that federal policies apply when favorable to them and then claim that the state has autonomy in the matter when the federal government holds that the positions that infringe on the Fourteenth Amendment are no longer permissible.  

Similarly, in cases where an action does not ensure that due process and equality under the law is preserved in a state or enumerated obligations fulfilled, the federal government cannot interfere in the workings of the state. States possess privileges by virtue of their existence which are not to be denied, but these privileges must be used to further the aims of the state’s constitution and the rights of their citizens. 


Jacob Ningen is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.ningen@uconn.edu

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