The year is 1963, and Alabama Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium. Desperately trying to make good on his campaign promise to keep Alabama’s schools segregated, Wallace defies the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education and tries in vain to physically prevent black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the university.
Flash forward to 2015 and Alabama state officials are once again making headlines for disregarding federal court decisions. This time, the issue is regarding gay marriage.
A federal district court ruled that Alabama must lift its ban on same-sex marriage licenses, making Alabama the 37th state to have legal gay marriage. But Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court ordered probate judges to defy the federal court’s ruling, and as of Monday, more than 75 percent of Alabama’s counties did not issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Though his actions may not perfectly mirror Governor Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” Chief Justice Moore’s decision to defy a federal court order bears some resemblance to the 1963 event — it’s yet another instance of a state official promoting the devolution of power from the federal level to the state level of government.
Theoretically speaking, there is a viable argument to be made for the expansion of states’ power. A government closer to the people and responsible for a smaller population — and perhaps a more homogenous population — should be able to better understand the needs of its citizens than a large federal government, right?
But, historically speaking, we’ve seen too many instances of state governments acting irresponsibly to comfortably grant the states more power. From the fighting of the Civil War to the enforcement of Jim Crow laws to the refusal to legalize gay marriage, the most notable and well-known attempts to establish state sovereignty have been national embarrassments — occasions when states show reluctance to progress and a willingness to suppress basic human rights.
What’s more, the states haven’t managed the power they do have very well. Look for example at state provided public education. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez held that education is not a fundamental right explicitly stated in the constitution, and the responsibility to fund public schools has consequentially fallen upon state governments.
And states have done a markedly bad job at providing funding for their schools. According to an article published in 2014 by pewtrusts.org, all but five states have been the subjects of lawsuits due to failures to fulfill their education spending obligations.
We therefore suggest that government officials trying to impose or establish state power choose their battles carefully. When deciding to defy federal law, consider what it is you’re fighting for, because if you defy federal law to prevent national progress, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You are proving that state officials are not responsible enough to be trusted with expanded power.
When states’ most well-known attempts at seizing power are surrounding efforts to maintain slavery, continue oppression and bar human rights, then a governmental policy that sounds nice in theory — state sovereignty — becomes one that does not work in practice.