There are no better examples for showcasing the difference between “federal intervention” and “states’ rights” than the United States’ recent challenge of South Carolina’s voter identification and illegal immigration laws. While some may criticize the federal government’s recent actions as overstepping its bounds or a misuse of government resources, it is more accurate to describe the actions as federalism at its finest, operating as the Founding Fathers intended. If one of the purposes of federal supremacy is to curb the excesses of the majority and protect the interest of the minority, then the Department of Justice is operating just as James Madison anticipated, countering one of the primary evils the Constitution was designed to check.
The S.C. General Assembly’s recent laws involving voter identification and illegal immigration have been fairly questioned in certain circles as being discriminatory toward African Americans and Hispanics. Both pieces of legislation were championed by a conservative GOP-controled legislature and signed by a Republican female governor who, ironically, is both a minority and child of immigrants. The two pieces of legislation, depending on whom you believe, greatly curtail the ability of poor minorities to vote and subject others to police action or arrest based on their ethnicity alone. The Justice Department, under a Democratic president, has challenged both laws much to the consternation of S.C. Republicans. House Speaker Bobby Harrell says the DOJ’s decisions were an “unprecedented misuse of federal resources to interject its ideology on state issues,” while Gov. Nikki Haley said they were a waste of “time and energy of our federal resources.” Haley also accused the Justice Department of overstepping its bounds and treading over “our states rights.”
I beg to differ. Rather than quote these two exemplars of justice and equality, we should consider the words of Madison, who wrote of “citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” There is no better description of states’ rights advocates than this — citizens who are united on a local level and motivated to trample the rights of minority citizens who are politically underrepresented. Conservative Republicans, as the champions of states’ rights, have embodied this philosophy since the 1960s. In Federalist Paper No. 10, one of the influential essays written in support of the ratification of the Constitution, Madison posited that a system of federalism would counter these excesses since national representatives would be more likely to look out for the greater good. Whether or not one believes this, we do know that the federal government has been the only entity able to challenge state-sanctioned discrimination in the South. President Dwight Eisenhower’s use of the National Guard to allow the Little Rock Nine to integrate the University of Arkansas and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education serve as two recent historical examples of federal power being employed in this manner.
Let me be one of the first to praise the recent actions of the U.S. Department of Justice, not merely on political grounds, but on constitutional grounds as well. If the rights of all citizens in this country are to be preserved, then states with a history of discrimination cannot be allowed to enact measures that purposely abridge the rights of minorities. If such laws cannot be blocked at the local level, then we should thank our Founding Fathers for a system of checks and balances that allows for the review and the possible invalidation of these laws on the federal level.