States Rights

Index to posts in this series

One of the recurrent themes in The Nation That Never Was by Kermit Roosevelt is states rights, the right of the state to make many critical decisions about the rights and privileges of their residents. It seems like a strange way to run a country. How can we think of ourselves as a single nation when there are enormous variations in our rights? It seems contradictory to another recurrent theme of Roosevelt: the desire for unity.

The original English settlements in the US were organized under Charters from the Kings of England. They seem to have been drawn for various political reasons, that is reasons of English politics and money, and without regard to the interests of Indigenous Americans, or of the Colonists. There was no plan. Our original 13 colonies arrived on the scene just like the nations of the Middle East after the Sykes-Picot lines: as an exercise of British colonialism.

The Colonists were subjects of the English Crown, but each colony eventually established its own government. They created courts, legislatures, and administrative bodies usually under a written constitution. One of the big complaints in the Declaration of Independence is that the King is ignoring these institutions. As an example:

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

By 1776, these governments were entrenched. After the Revolutionary War their big fear was that any central government would act the tyrant as had the English Kings. That led to the Articles of Confederation, which created a central government so weak it could not be a tyrant. The Articles were a total failure.

But the dominant vision remained. Colonial leaders wanted a federation of independent states, each with a strong government, and a national government barred from interfering with state governments. The Constitution preserves most of the powers of the individual states, and gave the rest to the central government. They got a central government strong enough to insure peace among these independent units, to ward off external attack, and to establish a suitable business environment. People’s rights as citizens of the United States were limited. Substantially all individual rights sprang from state citizenship.

Even within this context slavery was a paramount issue. The northern states were moving away from it, as was Europe. This was obviously a concern to the Southern states, and the Constitution contains provisions they demanded by the to alleviate those concerns.

Roosevelt says that supporting the demands of the slave states is just the first of many occasions in which unity takes priority over equality in our history. It’s one of the many times the interests and rights of Black people were sacrificed to the demands of unity.

The Constitution was an agreement among the Thirteen Colonies, not an agreement of “We the people of the United States” as the Preamble states. Theoretically the people agreed through their representatives in the state governments, but that seems just as unlikely as the assumptions underlying of social contract theory.

The Founders Constitution preserves the powers of the States except for specific matters, and that is confirmed by the Tenth Amendment:

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.

The powers reserved to the states include determining citizenship in the state, the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, almost all other political rights, and the right to establish and regulate slavery. This is the origin of the notion of states rights: that the state has the right to determine your rights.

Theoretically the Reconstruction Amendments changed the relations between the states and the Federal government. Citizenship in a state was conferred on all residents, and the states didn’t get to decide that question. The rights in the Constitution became enforceable against the states, although that took decades and has a twisted legal history. Voting was a right guaranteed by the federal government. States were prohibited from treating people differently on account of race. Congress was explicitly empowered to legislate these changes. But the Supreme Court refused to allow this to happen. In the Slaughter-House Cases and later cases, the Supreme Court narrowed and nearly neutered the Reconstructions Amendments and restored state power, enabling states to neutralize the supposed gains of Black citizens.

The pre-Civil War arrangement of power continues to the present. In a 2010 case, McDonald v. City Of Chicago, the revanchist Alito said that SCOTUS wouldn’t reexamine the Slaughter-House Cases.


Reading these cases makes me wonder what it means to be a US citizen, a point I have raised before, as here. If it’s true that your rights mostly come from the state where you live, the differences among the rights available to citizens can be enormous.

Two of the obvious examples currently are abortion and trans rights. Right-wing state legislators are passing laws to police these bodies directly and by terrifying medical professionals. Another obvious example is the right-wing assaults on education, including the ridiculous Florida laws against teaching subjects the right wing can’t face, like Black history and racism, LGBTQ rights, and critical thinking. This includes books like the two in this series and probably my posts on them.

I think the problem is much wider. The plain fact is that some states take better care of their citizens than others. The clearest example of this is life expectancy. Here’s a list of the states by life expectancy at birth using data from the years 2018-20. The top 5 states, all Blue (New Hampshire at 4 is purple), have a life expectancy of 79.4 years while the bottom 5, all bright Red, are at 72.9. If, as the Declaration claims, you have a right to life, you get nearly 9 more years of it in Hawaii than in Mississippi.

The same is true for education, public safety, and all other aspects of government that are primarily the responsibility of states. That inequality is the direct result of the notion of dual sovereignty that underlies cases like McDonald.

This problem was created by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS decisions about our rights as US citizens start with the Slaughter-House Cases and related cases that tightly narrow the Reconstruction Amendments. At about the same time SCOTUS decided to give rights to corporations just like people. SCOTUS dismantled the Voting Rights Act in direct violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which give Congress the power to legislate. SCOTUS allows gerrymandering on the flimsiest pretexts and on the shadow docket.

Because whatever rights we have as citizens of the US are in the Constitution and federal laws, SCOTUS has the final say. SCOTUS has proven itself to be a screaming disaster for democracy, and for the supposed principles of the Founders of equality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Justice Jackson’s Brilliant Debut

On her second day of oral argument at the Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson showed the wisdom of her appointment and confirmation. A short clip of one of her questions in Merrill v. Milligan made the rounds on Twitter, giving everyone a taste of her skill and understanding. Her point was so powerful I wondered how the lawyer responded.

The case involves an Alabama redistricting map. Plaintiffs alleged that the map unfairly discriminated against Black voters by reducing the number of majoirity-minority congressional districts unfairly. A three-judge district court ruled that the map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s a fairly neutral discussion of the legal context in which the case was argued. Sec. 2 gives individuals the right to sue to prevent any state action to dilute minority voting power. The leading case on Sec. 2 is Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 US 30 (1986). The case sets out three factors which the plaintiff must prove to establish a violation of Sec. 2.

1.The racial or language minority group is “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district”;

2. The minority group is “politically cohesive” (meaning its members tend to vote similarly); and

3. The “majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it … usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.”

The colloquy between Justice Jackson and Alabama Solicitor General Edmond Lacour concerns the first Gingles test. Lacour argues that plaintiffs were required to present a race-neutral map as a benchmark to show that Alabama’s map diluted Black voting power. The transcript can be found here. We start at page 52. Justice Amy Coney Barrett asks Lacour this question:

…if you were forced to adopt a map proposed by the plaintiffs that was racially gerrymandered because race was predominant in its drawing, that you would be violating the Fourteenth Amendment.

Therefore, the first factor of Gingles required to get past the hurdle that Justice Jackson was talking about, to get past that hurdle, it required race neutrality.

Is that your central argument?

MR. LACOUR: Yes, that –that is our core argument that it –it cannot be that they can come forward with a map that we would never be allowed to draw, call it reasonably configured and then force us to draw a map we would never be allowed to constitutionally draw.

You can think of that either –the problem is either race predominance or the problem is, when race enters in to the equation, then traditional districting principles necessarily have to yield, which is what the district court found on page 214 of the Milligan stay appendix, non-racial considerations had to yield to race.

He’s saying that the Constitution bars Alabama from drawing a map that uses race to create majority Black districts. After further discussion, Justice Jackson takes over.

JUSTICE JACKSON: Yes. I am so, so glad for Justice Barrett’s clarification because I had the same thought about what you were arguing, and I’m glad that you clarified that your core point is that the Gingles test has to have a race-neutral baseline or that the –the first step has to be race-neutral.

And –and what I guess I’m a little confused about in light of that argument is why, given our normal assessment of the Constitution, why is it that you think that there’s a Fourteenth Amendment problem? And let me just clarify what I mean by that.

I don’t think we can assume that just because race is taken into account that that necessarily creates an equal protection problem, because I understood that we looked at the history and traditions of the Constitution at what the framers and the founders thought about and when I drilled down to that level of analysis, it became clear to me that the framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause, the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, in a race conscious way.

That they were, in fact, trying to ensure that people who had been discriminated against, the freedmen in –during the reconstructive –reconstruction period were actually brought equal to everyone else in the society.
So I looked at the report that was submitted by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, and that report says that the entire point of the amendment was to secure rights of the freed former slaves.

The legislator who introduced that amendment said that “unless the Constitution should restrain them, those states will all, I fear, keep up this discrimination and crush to death the hated freedmen.”

That’s not –that’s not a race-neutral or race-blind idea in terms of the remedy. And –and even more than that, I don’t think that the historical record establishes that the founders believed that race neutrality or race blindness was required, right? They drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which specifically stated that citizens would have the same civil rights as enjoyed by white citizens. That’s the point of that Act, to make sure that the other citizens, the black citizens, would have the same as the white citizens. So they recognized that there was unequal treatment, that people, based on their race, were being treated unequally.

And, importantly, when there was a concern that the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have a constitutional foundation, that’s when the Fourteenth Amendment came into play. It was drafted to give a foundational –a constitutional foundation for a piece of legislation that was designed to make people who had less opportunity and less rights equal to white citizens.

So with that as the framing and the background, I’m trying to understand your position that Section 2, which by its plain text is doing that same thing, is saying you need to identify people in this community who have less opportunity and less ability to participate and ensure that that’s remedied, right? It’s a race-conscious effort, as you have indicated. I’m trying to understand why that violates the Fourteenth Amendment, given the history and -and background of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Lacour says:

The Fourteenth Amendment is a prohibition on discriminatory state action. It is not an obligation to engage in affirmative discrimination in favor of some groups vis-à-vis others.

That contradicts what Justice Jackson just said. She repeats her point using shorter words. Lacour repeats his earlier statement that Alabama shouldn’t have to sacrifice “other redistricting principles” for the sake of racial fairness unless plaintiffs prove Alabama’s map is discriminatory. He says plaintiffs have to prove specific racial discrimination before thay can use race as a factor in drawing lines. That would require plaintiffs to produce a race-neutral map as a matter of evidence. Justice Jackson says that the point of the Gingles test is to make that determination as required by Sec. 2. Lacour says:

Not if they’re allowed to sacrifice our principles to come up with their maps.

“They” refers to the Black Plaintiffs. Justice Jackson pokes at this response and Lacour says some words. Roberts moves to the next lawyer.


1. Justice Jackson is right on the original purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment. In The Slaughter-House Cases SCOTUS construed it so narrowly that it became useless for equalizing government treatment of newly freed slaves, or anyone else, except in very rare cases. But recent scholarship has recovered the original intent. See, e.g. R. Barnett and E. Bernick, The Original Meaning Of The Fourteenth Amend: It’s Letter And Spirit (2018). I haven’t read this book, but based on reviews, it generally tries to extricate the original breadth of the Fourteenth Amendment in Line with Justice Jackson’s analysis. Barnett is a well-known originalist.

2. Lacour’s position is absurd. How can you not laugh at the idea that Alabama has sacred principles of drawing district lines? Of course it does: draw the lines so White people always win. Even if we could imagine some other principle, why should it be so important as to justify diluting minority voting power?

3. John Roberts has devoted his career to destroying the Voting Rights Act. The other right-wingers follow him because it suits their own partisan purposes. They all follow in the tradition of the revanchist SCOTUS of the Slaughter-House Cases. The idea that the Fourteenth Amendment is color-blind is madness.

4. The six right-wingers pretend that their decisions are guided by originalism. When this opinion comes out, look for the tortured logic dismissing the originalist argument so clearly laid out by Justice Jackson.

5. The coward Ben Sasse said that he couldn’t vote to confirm Justice Jackson because he only supported originalists. Obviously she is intellectually rigorous, using originalism as one of the tools of interpretation, just as she said in her confirmation hearing. The six right-wingers only care about original intent when it can be made to fit their preferred outcome.

6. The revanchist six claim that their opinions are driven by their judicial philosophy, not by political ends. They scold their critics for questioning their legitimacy. But the reality is that their so-called judicial philosophy is indistinguishable from right-wing Republican ideology.