Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:22 pm
World-Herald editorial: States must reject bogus nullification

The last time we checked, Missouri is still part of the United States. It’s not the independent Republic of Missouri. Missouri residents don’t need visas to travel to Iowa or Nebraska.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Missouri has no authority to refuse to obey federal laws.

Yet the Missouri Legislature appears poised to pass into law — over the amply warranted veto by Gov. Jay Nixon — a bill to declare null and void any federal gun law that Missouri leaders don’t like.

The legislation not only asserts the bogus claim that Missouri can refuse to obey federal law. It also says the state can actively block federal agents who attempt to enforce such laws and even charge them criminally.

Such dangerous radicalism may be popular in some overheated political circles (similar calls have been made in other states, including Nebraska), but there’s no question that it’s directly contradictory to the U.S. Constitution.

Any state attorney general who tries to defend such a law won’t have a legal leg to stand on.

A similar nullification proposal came before the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee last spring, and the committee responsibly refused to act on it.

At the hearings for that bill, some supporters ludicrously asserted that it’s up to individual Americans — not the courts — to determine when a law is constitutional. As if such fanciful assertions weren’t enough, the committee also heard from two Nebraska county sheriffs who voiced support for the legislation and — in an extraordinary claim — said they would either ticket or attempt to arrest FBI agents who tried to enforce new federal gun laws.

Committee members tried to restore a bit of reality to the proceedings by pointing out that it’s the courts, not individuals, who decide constitutional questions and that sheriffs have no authority to arrest FBI agents.

The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own firearms, and the U.S. Supreme Court underscored that in a major ruling in 2010. But the court also explicitly left room for government regulation.

The Supreme Court also has stated emphatically and repeatedly that state governments have no authority to nullify federal laws. In 1958, when some Southern states asserted such authority in the disreputable effort to block school desegregation, the Supreme Court stated: “No state legislator or executive or judicial officer can war against the Constitution without violating his solemn oath to support it.”

Presidents have long made that point on a bipartisan basis. Republican Abraham Lincoln stood up to Southern claims of secession, and Dwight Eisenhower asserted federal authority to enforce the end of school segregation in Little Rock, Ark.

Democrat Andrew Jackson — in the 1830s during what historians dub the Nullification Crisis — said in unmistakable terms that he would use the full extent of his authority to compel South Carolina to obey federal tariff laws that state had opposed.

James Madison, hailed as the “father of the Constitution,” was still living in the 1830s, and guess what? He took pen to paper and offered a fervent attack on nullification, calling it a “spurious doctrine” and “deadly poison.”

Respect for the Constitution means following it. Don’t like a federal law? Elect a Congress and president who will try to change it. Think the Constitution needs changing? It covers that, spelling out methods for amending the fundamental law of the land.

But a state cannot claim all the benefits of being one of the United States and yet claim the ability to pick and choose which federal laws it will obey.

That reality evidently hasn’t sunk into the minds of Missouri’s elected lawmakers. But if their irresponsible nullification proposal does become law, have no doubt that the courts will wind up tutoring them about that reality in no uncertain terms.

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