On the EDge: States’ rights; you can’t have it both ways

Stock images, St. George News

OPINION – You can’t have it both ways even though the political tilt-a-whirl would have you believe you can.

Especially when you venture into the realm of states’ rights.

Those lines separating political ideology were once well-defined.

Your average, garden-variety conservatives embraced the concept of states’ rights and the principle that states should be governed with a minimum of interference from the federal government.

On the other side, your homegrown progressive has turned to the federal government for assurances that often stretch beyond the strict confines of the Constitution.

We see these philosophies taking form in the arguments regarding everything from environmental regulation to the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes.

Utah, particularly Iron County, is still enmeshed in a grueling duel over rights of the Utah prairie dog as it continues to be a staple of our judicial system with courts taking turns overruling each other in a matter that has perturbed the folks of Iron County for decades.

This particular fracas will continue the traditional separation as conservatives argue that the state knows best in the battle over the pesky rodent, which is protected by federal regulation.

This is not the norm today because, in some matters, they are swapping ideological sides – depending on the issue – and it is the progressives who are the newest proponents of states’ rights and the conservatives who are leaning on the feds for support.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown wants more stringent environmental legislation while conservatives are pushing for adherence to federal rules.

In California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Alaska, Nevada and Maine voters have approved recreational use of cannabis. There are 28 states that have approved the use of medical cannabis.

Clearly, the voters have spoken and states’ rights advocates should line up in support.

But, the traditional thrust of states’ right activism has taken an opposite course with this administration, and conservatives in general, claiming it will crack down and enforce federal law.

We saw this duality with the Affordable Care Act, are witnessing the stress of the federal and state give-and-take over sanctuary cities, energy and other critical issues.

This conservative-progressive flip has happened before of course, when the Democrats were the party of conservatives, clinging to states’ rights to support slavery up to and including the Civil War, and the Republicans the party of stronger federalism.

I don’t see either party going quite as far this time around, however; otherwise conservatives would more heartily embrace issues of social and compassionate importance and progressives would back down from those issues. Contrarily, both sides are doubling down on their positions, just employing different tactics to seek their goals.

The states’ rights versus federal power debate is one of those arguments that is constantly won and lost on the fly, depending on the whim or movement of the day. It has gone from the scholarly – and Constitutional – realms as a matter of convenience.

I mean, how else could you explain it?

Surely the new advocates of federal power, who seek greater enforcement of its laws, understand that to enforce those laws requires larger, more expensive government, correct?

And, surely, those flocking to states’ rights realize that they are, in the end, subject to smaller social and cultural restrictions because of geography, right? I mean can you ever imagine Washington or Iron counties signing on to recreational pot? Not in the foreseeable future, just as you will not see either conform willingly to stricter environmental regulation or any iteration of the ACA.

It just won’t happen.

Complicating the issue is this thing called the 10th Amendment, which specifically states that the federal government owns only those powers described in the Constitution and that all others are reserved for the states to determine on their own.

There are other tests and triggers involved there ranging on commerce and the ability and willingness of the feds to fund projects – a pretty heavy weapon in the federal arsenal of political warfare.

I have always thought that the federal government should be responsible for the broader-scale issues and that the state should handle the more specific bits and pieces.

For example, the feds, by this line of thinking, are responsible for health care, civil rights and liberties, protecting our natural resources, ensuring the security, safety and well being of our poor, young and elderly.

It should provide us with our interstates, our trade – domestic and international – and national security.


The states should have the right to deny federal allowances.

If a locality, for example, decides it does not want to sell alcohol, it should have that right as a matter of local and cultural influence.

Should that same locality, however, reject laws governing civil rights? Absolutely not.

Should a state be allowed to go lax on environmental issues because of the potential for lucrative deals with Big Oil or other special interests? Of course not.

Should the feds step in and tell the folks in states with recreational pot laws to snuff their doobies? Not in a million years.

Am I cherry picking?


But that is what we are facing today and that is where we will find an odd mix of strange bedfellows as we try to go forward with this administration.

We must always ask if Team Trump is following law or cherry picking when it comes to the chasm between state and federal rights.

We are not getting any indication of consistency here, no depiction of a greater picture to help guide us through the miasma of politics.

As the game of politics moves along, there is an easy acceptance of being a staunch states’ righter.

It seems, superficially, to be a more democratic form of government until you realize it also is dangerous because we can quickly become a nation where one state is freer or more compassionate or more whatever than another.

We soon realize that we need some sense of uniformity that binds us, but how much? To what extent do we allow government to govern? How much overlap is acceptable? How much is not? How do we decide if an issue should be settled by the states or if it should fall under the federal umbrella? Don’t tell me it’s all there in the Constitution because it isn’t. If it was, life would all be much simpler.

Of course, everything would be much simpler if it wasn’t for this thing we call politics that seems to always go in and throw that darned monkey wrench into our best-laid plans.

No bad days!

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • Not_So_Much April 4, 2017 at 7:39 am

    I will look to the original intent of the Constitution. It is all there as long as you don’t start twisting it around to suit the issue of the moment. What would have to occur for the good of all is that citizens would need to engage with city, county and state government. Would this result in differences from state to state? I would think so and I believe the best ideas would spread from one state to another and dysfunctional ones disappear. The bigger the government the smaller the citizen.

  • Proud Rebel April 4, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Along with the politicians of the moment, willing to change their “absolutely firm stance” on whichever way the winds of politics of the moment, you have the problems of states, counties and cities, that are unwilling to give up the federal money. The people who are calling for the feds to turn over federal land to the state, are the same ones that will cry the loudest when they no longer have the federal teet to suck.
    And the feds are absolutely convinced that they are all knowing, and should have control of everything!
    There is something inherently wrong with the federal government having complete control over all laws. Nobody wants to be told by Washington, how to wipe their backside.
    On the other hand, you have states that have conflicting laws with their neighboring states. There is something inherently wrong with a system of laws that allows a citizen to do something in one place, and yet makes him a criminal if he does exactly the same thing when he moves six inches, and happens to cross a state line.
    And there are a surprising number of these disperatives in the law.
    Talk to anyone who frequently travels from state to state, either on business, or pleasure. I venture to say, that you will find a fairly high percentage of these folks have unwittingly broken a law, and have paid the price.
    The problem, as always, comes down to people. To selfishness, to the desire to control other people, to self-righteousness.
    Just some food for thought.

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