How the Coronavirus Pandemic is the Latest Showdown Between States’ Rights and Federal Authority.
Vice President Mike Pence with the Coronavirus Task Force
While addressing reporters during a daily coronavirus press briefing, President Trump recently claimed that he had “total authority" to decide when states would reopen their economies.
According to an article published by NPR, Trump said “I will be speaking to all 50 governors very shortly… and I will then be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening, a very powerful reopening plan of their estate in a time in a manner which is most appropriate.”
While President Trump did soften his stance by stating “I’m not going to put pressure on any governor to open,” these comments, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, have drawn sharp criticism from both liberals and conservatives alike.
Once again, our country is facing another Federal Rights versus States' Rights legal battle that is sure to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
While making these inflammatory comments, Trump angered many Republican politicians — even his most enthusiastic supporters — with his bold assertion of Federal law superseding in this unprecedented situation.
“How & when to modify physical distancing orders should & will be made by Governors,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted on Tuesday.
“Federal guidelines issues by @CDCgov & @WhiteHouse will be very influential. But the Constitution & common sense dictates these decisions be made at the state level,” tweeted Rubio, referring to the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution that reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.
Dr. Deborah Birx of the Coronavirus Task Force
Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a staunch Trump loyalist, asserted that “The federal government does not have absolute power” on a social media post.
The fiery criticism doesn’t end there, folks.
Professor John Yoo, a former Justice Department official under the George W. Bush administration, offered his two cents on the issue: “The federal government does not have that power. The Constitution’s grant of limited, enumerated powers to the national government does not include the right to regulate either public health or all business in the land.
Our federal system reserves the leading role over public health to state governors. States possess the ‘police power’ to regulate virtually all activity within their borders,” wrote Yoo in a recent National Review op-ed.
The 10th Amendment explicitly states: “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.”
This turn of events highlights an ever-emerging trend that has appeared with the Trump Administration: conditional states’ rights. President Trump seems to only endorse state sovereignty when it advances his political agenda.
For example, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sparred with governors in coastal states over his agency’s plan to open federal waters to offshore drilling. A couple years ago, Betsy Devos claimed that state governments lack the authority to investigate predatory practices made by some of the country’s largest student loan companies. And former Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California over its “sanctuary policies” that protected undocumented immigrants from being deported.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the issue of states’ rights versus federal authority continues to be at the epicenter of American politics. From the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the American Civil War; from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement; and to the political issues that our nation currently faces, the struggle between state and federal power has continued to define how the government responds to certain situations.
Right after President Trump claimed he had “total” authority to decide when states were going to reopen their economies, governors in the Northeast (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts) and on the West Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) formed coalitions to coordinate plans on how to revitalize the economy while handling the coronavirus outbreak in their respective states.
Governor John Carney (D-DE) said that governors should make the official call on when to reopen their economies because they know the coronavirus situation in their states best.
“We should be the ones that open it back up based on the situation on the ground,” said Carney while being interviewed by WBUR. “I’m sure that I know a lot more about what’s happening on the ground here in Delaware than the task force in Washington, D.C., the president and vice president.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), a vocal critic of the Trump Administration, recently told NBC’s Today Show that “If he thinks he’s going to force this state or any state, for that matter, to do something that is reckless or irresponsible, that could endanger human life, literally.”
What began as a public health emergency is now evolving into a constitutional power struggle; that is, what level of government (whether it be local, state, or federal) has the authority to deal with such a massive health emergency such as COVID-19?
It is worth noting that the governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arkansas have refused to issue stay-at-home orders. All of them are Republicans, by the way.
While residents of the aforementioned states mostly live in rural communities (for instance, just under 400 North Dakotans have been infected with the disease), the refusal to enact some sort of shelter-in-place law raises the question if state governments should be entirely responsible handling public health crises. Imagine what would happen if North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and Andrew Cuomo switched leadership roles so that Burgum was Governor of New York?
As of mid-April, the Empire State has more than 222,000 residents who have fallen ill to the virus. I’m not Anthony Fauci, but that number could have been in the millions if a stay-at-home order wasn’t issued.
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Coronavirus Task Force
South Dakota was recently home to the biggest coronavirus hot spot in the United States. The Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls employed more than 640 workers who were diagnosed with the disease.
“A shelter-in-place order is needed now. It is needed today,” said Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken during a press conference.
In this situation, maybe President Trump’s claim to power sounds appeasing. If COVID-19 is indeed a threat to National Security, then his claims of total authority may have legs with his loyal fan base.
On April 16, 2020, Trump's Coronavirus Task Force outlined a three-phase plan to reopen the country, with a specific set of guidelines at each stage. Click here to read NBC News' outstanding report on the specifics of this plan.
This is definitely a proactive move on the part of President Trump. But with an administration that withdrew funding from the World Health Organization while ignoring WHO guidelines in January and February that may have saved countless lives, the 10th Amendment is more important than ever to defend.
Article written by Jett James Pruitt
What are your thoughts? Please share this article with your comments.