“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” — “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
— Lewis Carroll in “Through The Looking Glass”
Any county sheriff will tell you that you do not have the right to disregard or disobey a law just because you disagree with it, which is why recent statements by sheriffs in Raleigh, Boone and Hardy counties are odd. In January they announced that they would refuse to enforce all federal gun control laws in their counties, citing as their reason their oaths of office to “uphold the Constitution.”
What apparently escaped the sheriffs was that their oaths require the enforcement of laws – all laws – that are legally enacted and that have not been found to be unconstitutional by the courts. Their oaths do not empower them nor even permit them to judge the constitutionality of those laws. So, when the sheriffs declare that they will not enforce legally enacted laws, they are falsely asserting that their Constitutional powers and judgment are superior to those of the legislatures that passed the laws and the courts — including the Supreme Court of the United States — that have upheld them.
But, it’s not only rogue sheriffs who would substitute their constitutional judgment for that of Congress and the courts. And guns are not the only issue for which they and others would do so.
In addition to sponsoring multiple bills that would purportedly nullify federal gun control laws in West Virginia, Berkeley County representative to the West Virginia of Delegates Eric Householder has also sponsored two bills that would theoretically nullify the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Meanwhile, two North Carolina state representatives are addressing the issue of religious freedom with a resolution that declares, “each state is sovereign and may independently determine how the state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.” The resolution then breezily dismisses 220 years of Supreme Court rulings that say otherwise by announcing, “the Constitution of the United States does not grant the federal government and does not grant the federal courts the power to determine what is or is not constitutional.”
“Well Golllllllllllly!” as Gomer Pyle, fictitious favorite son of North Carolina, used to say. One hopes that these erudite descendents of Gomer who sponsored the resolution will inform U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his associates that their services are no longer needed and that every ruling the court has made since, oh, 1789 is null and void.
It’s easy to make fun of the North Carolina representatives and their bizarre reading of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states or the people powers not granted to the federal government and upon which these flights of constitutional fancy are based. But, at least the North Carolinians, unlike Eric Householder and the sheriffs, seem to have some inkling of the legal ramifications of their interpretation. And the legal consequences are trivial compared to the social consequences.
A land in which states and even local sheriffs have constitutional powers superior to those of Congress and the federal courts is a land in which the Constitution’s meaning would change depending on the state and county in which you happened to be. Different place, different Constitution. Or, to borrow from Humpty Dumpty, the Constitution would mean just what each state’s legislature, courts and county sheriffs choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
What difference would that make? For one thing, George W. Bush probably would not have been president because the U.S. Supreme Court could not have overruled Florida’s supreme court order that votes be recounted in the 2000 presidential election. Social Security and Medicare could be abolished by individual states. So could child labor laws, anti-discrimination laws, the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week. In fact, states could declare congressionally created independent agencies, including the CIA, the Federal Reserve, NASA, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the EPA unconstitutional. And many federal laws and taxes would be rendered unenforceable because the crazy quilt pattern of interpretation and enforcement would mean they could no longer be applied uniformly in the country, thus violating the 14th Amendment requirement for equal protection under the law.
But the most tragic consequence of embracing this Humpty Dumpty interpretation of the 10th Amendment would be the destruction of national unity. The United States’ crowning achievement as a model of governance is that our system demands and facilitates the resolution of issues in a way that we all respect and by which we abide even though some of us may disagree and continue to work for change. If you take away the demand for resolution of disputes and allow every state and county to become a law unto itself, then inevitably in times of crisis when unity is most necessary, we will be less willing to make common purpose with neighbors whose policies we find repulsive.
America once fought a civil war in large part because in the north and south separate societies emerged that were culturally and morally incompatible. We arrived at that extreme by degrees, which is why the 10th Amendment Humpty Dumpties are playing with fire and why the West Virginia sheriffs and Eric Householder are children with matches.
— Sean O’Leary may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org