States’ Rights

The phrase “states rights” is often used in discussions about what powers the federal government has to make laws, in contrast to the power states have to pass laws. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is at the center of these discussions: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

In practice, this means that some states have legalized marijuana, declared an official state language, or done away with sales taxes, when these things were not part of the federal law of the United States.

The U.S. federal government has full rights to strike down any law made for Puerto Rico by the government of Puerto Rico, but it cannot do this to a state. The Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution says that when federal law conflicts with state law, federal law comes first. However, states are allowed to make laws about anything that is not specifically covered in the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, states can do things a territory can’t. People living in a state vote for a presidential candidate, and then send representatives to the Electoral College, where they represent their state and vote as the state for the candidate their state chose.

States are equal to one another, and must be treated equally. More than a century ago, the Supreme Court said that states “are equal to each other in power and dignity and competency to exert the residuum of sovereignty not delegated to the Federal Government. The constitutional duty of Congress of guaranteeing to each State a republican form of government does not import a power to impose upon a new State, as a condition to its admission to the Union, restrictions which render it unequal to the other States.”

The Court was talking about Oklahoma, but this statement has been applied generally. The federal government is free to treat territories differently from states, but states are equal and are treated equally. This makes a big difference in the amount of federal support states receive, compared with territories.

U.S. citizens living in states are permanent U.S. citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizens. They can’t lose their citizenship unless they renounce that citizenship or commit treason.

Being a state doesn’t instantly provide prosperity. It instantly provides sovereignty. States have rights.

And it quickly provides representation. States have people who can vote for them in the House and the Senate. They have a say in the presidency. This makes a big difference.

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