Labeled a “nullification” bill because it declares that “provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 grossly exceed the powers delegated to the federal government in the Constitution” and then offers several measures intended to undermine this federal law, the bill is part of a larger trend of conservative state lawmakers claiming that their state can simply wipe away federal laws that they disagree with. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) recently signed a bill purporting to nullify various federal gun laws, and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) relied on a nullification bill as part of his lawsuit challenging Obamacare (the federal appeals court that heard his case did not bite).
Nullification also conflicts with the unambiguous language of the Constitution, which provides that duly enacted federal laws “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.” Yet, despite clear constitutional language and Supreme Court precedents stretching as far back as 1819 establishing that states cannot enforce laws contrary to federal laws, nullification bills began to spring up shortly after a conservative writer named Tom Woods published a 2010 book entitled “Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century.” Some lawmakers have even openly cited Woods’ book to justify their views.
Woods is an odd source for lawmakers to rely upon. Among other things, he once published an article entitled “Christendom’s Last Stand,” which claims that the Civil War was a battle between “atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.” In Woods’ words, “[t]he real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today, was the defeat of the Confederate States of America in 1865.”
The Confederacy was defeated, and the vision of states rights that drove that act of treason shares many of the same roots as the nullification bills under consideration today. But America’s rejection of nullification has roots far deeper than Lincoln’s triumph over slave holders and traitors. If South Carolina has the power to nullify the Affordable Care Act, then it also has the power to nullify federal taxes, or to forbid military recruitment within its borders during war time. Similar fears that the United States Congress could not collect taxes or provide for an army drove America’s rejection of the Articles of Confederation, and eventually led to the much stronger Constitution we live under today.
As James Madison once warned, nullification will “speedily put an end to the Union itself.” The United States of America cannot function if each individual state can exempt itself and its citizens from any law they do not feel like following by passing a bill declaring that law unconstitutional.