"States' rights" has long had a reactionary connotation because of its connection to segregation. Defenders of Jim Crow-era policies hid behind the rights of states to do as they choose as they backed noxious policies that denied basic liberties to African-Americans. The most iconic imagery comes from 1963, when Gov. George Wallace stood in front of a University of Alabama door in defiance of a federal order demanding the entry of black students.
These days, however, progressive officials in California have, ironically, become the most zealous defenders of that age-old doctrine, although for entirely different and arguably more noble purposes. The state of California, for instance, has (along with some other states) filed 22 lawsuits in recent months against the Donald Trump administration, as a means to defy federal policies that they believe undermine Californians' rights as a self-governing people.
It's not the first time in recent years that California has served as a bulwark against the federal government. In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown defied federal court orders demanding the release of prisoners from the state's then-overcrowded prisons—an act that garnered various media comparisons to Wallace's stance. Our unpredictable Democratic governor was standing up against liberal judges to protect the public from criminals. It was weird.
Despite its misuse at times, the basic concept of federalism is one of the most significant ones devised by our nation's founding fathers. States are meant to serve as "laboratories of democracy," where they are free to try different types of policies. The U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment states that 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."
It's meant to keep the government closer to the people, where it better reflects the culture and priorities of each region's particular citizens. California is not Minnesota or Mississippi and Orange County is not San Francisco or Sacramento. That's how our founding fathers designed our state-based system, with courts serving as final arbiter. It's an important concept to consider as we evaluate the lawsuits and California's ongoing resistance to the Trump administration.
I find myself conflicted when evaluating the specific actions taken by our Democratic-controlled state government. I like the idea of our state asserting itself against officials in far-off Washington, D.C., even though I disagree with most of the policies that California officials choose to advance. Some of the state lawsuits are perfectly legitimate, but state leaders aren't making many distinctions. They are just throwing stuff against the wall, it seems, hoping to thwart an administration they find distasteful. A lot of this comes across as little more than Trump spite.
For instance, California has joined Washington state in opposing the Trump administration's executive order banning the entry of refugees from Muslim-majority nations. I find the Trump proposal to be unreasonably discriminatory and dislike executive orders in general, but immigration policy is a federal matter. California argues that our state "has an interest… in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin," but that's a stretch.
By contrast, as the Sacramento Bee reported, California "filed suit on August 14 to prevent the federal government from withholding public safety grants from cities and counties that do not expend public resources on immigration enforcement." This one makes my head spin. This lawsuit is legitimate, as it directly affects existing grants to our state.
But sanctuary cities are a troubling idea, and the feds are within their rights to withhold funds from states that don't comply with federal edicts. The entire funding system is ridiculous, actually. Why should states send money to the federal government and then lobby to get some of that money back in the form of grants? Furthermore, the president suggested he might "defund" California, but California is a donor state—it sends more to the national government than it gets in return.
Then there's the lawsuit against the federal decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which argues that the "program has allowed nearly 800,000 young people (including over 220,000 Californians) who have come of age in the United States—many of whom have known no other home—to come out of the shadows…" True enough and this affects California residents, but Congress is the appropriate place to restore this program.
These are complex issues, but unfortunately most policy makers—of the pro-Trump and anti-Trump variety—base their positions on whether they like or dislike the underlying policy. It would be better to evaluate them on whether they are appropriate state or federal functions. That's because states' rights are a bedrock of the American experiment. The government closest to the people doesn't always govern best, but it's wise to have this ongoing tension as a way to block any one level of government from running roughshod over the people.
This column was first published by the Orange County Register.