By Diane Rufino on August 27, 2013
Critics are quick to point out that the doctrine of nullification has never been legally upheld. In fact, the Supreme Court expressly rejected it – in Ableman v. Booth, 1959, and Cooper v. Aaron, 1958.
They say that the courts have spoken on the subject, and under the Supremacy Clause, federal law is superior to state law. Further, they argue that under Article III of the Constitution, the federal judiciary has the final power to interpret the Constitution. Therefore, the critics conclude, that the power to make final decisions about the constitutionality of federal laws lies with the federal courts, not the states, and the states do not have the power to nullify federal laws but rather, are duty-bound to obey them.
The fatal flaw in their arguments, however, is that they believe that the judiciary, a branch of the same federal government that tends to overstep their constitutional bounds, is somehow above the law and not subject to the remedy of nullification as the other branches are.
Another fatal flaw in their argument is that somehow, the Supremacy Clause is a rubber stamp that labels every federal law, every federal court decision, and every federal action “supreme.” They, and especially the justices of the Supreme Court, refer to the Supremacy Clause as if it were the Midas Touch – a magical power that turns EVERYTHING the federal government does, including by all three branches, to gold. Nothing is farther than the truth. The Supremacy Clause states simply: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; …shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…”
There is no debate that the Constitution, as originally drafted and defended, and as intended and ratified, designed a government of limited powers. Therefore it follows that only laws passed to legislate for the limited functions listed in the Constitution are supreme. Regarding objects and designs not expressly listed in the Constitution, the Ninth and Tenth Amendment remind us that they are reserved to the People or the States, respectively, and the federal government can claim no such supremacy. The Supremacy Clause states a preemptive doctrine that asserts sovereignty just as equally as the Ninth and Tenth Amendments assert sovereignty.
Hamilton explains federal supremacy in Federalist No. 33
It is said that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land. But what inference can be drawn from this, or what would they amount to, if they were not to be supreme? It is evident they would amount to nothing. A law, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule which those to whom it is prescribed are bound to observe. This results from every political association. If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers entrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals of whom they are composed. But it will not follow from this doctrine that acts of the large society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. These will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such. Hence we perceive that the clause which declares the supremacy of the laws of the Union, like the one we have just before considered, only declares a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a federal government. It will not, I presume, have escaped observation, that it expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution; which I mention merely as an instance of caution in the convention; since that limitation would have been to be understood, though it had not been expressed.
Critics also like to discredit nullification by associating it with the more controversial episodes in our history. A popular claim is that nullification was used to perpetuate slavery because it was embraced by Southern leaders who did not want blacks to take their place as free and equal men in their societies. They especially link nullification to South Carolina’s colorful Senator John C. Calhoun, who was not only a vocal proponent of the doctrine and used it to justify his state’s refusal to recognize the Tariff of Abominations in 1832, but also a strong supporter of slavery and a white supremacist. They like to say the so-called Nullification Crisis of 1832, pitting the South against the North, eventually precipitated the Civil War. They further allege that the Civil War settled the question of nullification.
There are so many flaws in these arguments.