The Constitution. This always makes for interesting debates and discussions. But when you start to tackle an issue like this, namely can a state pass a law refusing to honor or obey a federal law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, you have to look at a few areas. Firstly, the Constitution set up a system of checks and balances to handle things like this. State Governments don’t enter into that system. At all. Period. Only the Supreme Court has the power to declare a law unconstitutional. A single state, even a group of states can not do this. This issue was settled during the Civil War, when the Southern States seceded from the Union over the election of Abraham Lincoln and the issue of slavery. The Civil War has been considered by many historians and constitutional scholars to be the decisive moment in securing the supremacy of the Federal Government. You also have to look at the Constitution itself, because there are many nuances and implications in the document.
For an example, there are provisions like the commerce clause, which gives the federal government not only the right, but the responsibility to regulate all interstate commerce. This being because the Founding Fathers and subsequent congresses realized that if each state had it’s own rules and regulations, interstate commerce would soon become way too expensive and ultimately unsustainable, and that would put the country in whole in a lot of trouble. So, while the Constitution does not come right out and cite every possible example, anything that is bought, sold, traded or whatnot across state lines, be it food, material, credit, health insurance, car insurance, home insurance, or any of the millions examples out there is subject to federal regulation.
Now, one also has to look at why the framers of the Constitution set up this system of the Supreme Court to handle what is and is not constitutional. That reason being that while the Founding Fathers valued personal responsibility and gave people the right to alter or abolish a government that had ceased to listen to the will of the people, they did not trust the average person to have much say in things. This is why they set up the Electoral College, as they did not want to trust uninformed farmers and woodsmen to pick a President by popular vote. I’d like to say that that problem was no longer an issue in the modern era, but sadly you have outlets both left and right that pass themselves off as ‘news’ but actually push their political views as what should be and thus contribute to misleading, misinforming and confusing people.
To add to the potential mess that would result from a state being able to decide on it’s own that a law is unconstitutional, how does a state do that? Unless 100% of a state’s population agree that a law is unconstitutional, which I can promise you will never happen thanks to human nature, any state declaring a law unconstitutional would thus be trampling upon the constitutional rights of at least some of it’s citizens, which would then open that state up to lawsuits and legal problems, which the state now must spend money on, money that frankly every state in the union desperately needs to be spending in other areas.
The Supreme Court having this power, in a way, actually protects the states from the fallout that would come from one or more of them deciding not to follow a law. Following up on that, ideally, the Supreme Court should be neutral. State governments all too often are purely political. Democrats might declare a law passed by a Republican unconstitutional just because they don’t want their rivals to succeed, and we’ve already seen examples of the other side of that coin, Republicans opposing something just because Obama and the Democrats support it. Thus, it’s better that this sort of decision isn’t entrusted to the states and avoids the temptation of states declaring various laws unconstitutional just because they disagree on political ideology.
As a final remark, part of what makes our democracy so remarkable is the fact that we were given a document that is able to adapt to the times, as things change and issues and areas that the Founding Fathers couldn’t even conceive of become normal and commonplace. It’s a romantic notion to imagine a world where a state could tell the federal government where to stick a law, but in reality, and especially with the current tone of our politics at the moment, there is only one logical conclusion to such a system. Another Civil War. I can’t imagine anyone would seriously want to open that can of worms. Our Founding Fathers sure didn’t. That’s why they created the Supreme Court and entrusted them to decided whether or not a law is unconstitutional.
On the bright side, this does not mean a state is helpless in such matters. A state can sue over a law and thus start the process of getting the case to the Supreme Court so that they can decide on the constitutionality of a law, if they think the Supreme Court should strike it down, rather then simply wait and hope the Supreme Court does it on it’s own. If a state wishes a law overturned, that is really it’s only recourse. Simply put, as written in the Constitution, Federal Law takes precedent over any and all state and local laws and a state just does not have the authority to pass a law refusing to follow federal law.