Idea Of Nullification Gains Steam In Texas

There's been much talk among anti-Obama, Tea Party activists of a legal concept called nullification. The belief is that if the citizens of a state decide they don't like a federal law passed, the 10th Amendment gives them the power to simply ignore it. The idea has caught fire among some Texans.

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Here's an idea that's been gaining traction with some people who are fed up with Washington. Say, Congress passes something that a particular state doesn't like. Take, for example, the president's health-care overhaul. Well, what if that state then had the right to say the federal action is without value, and could nullify it?

As NPR's John Burnett reports, it's a notion that's popping up in lots of places, including Texas.

JOHN BURNETT: It's an intoxicating idea: The federal government creates a law that Texans decide they hate, so they get their representatives in the state legislature to pass a bill that effectively rejects it, basing their actions on the 10th Amendment, which says the powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states.

A 30-year-old insurance agent from North Texas, named John Stacy, organized the Nullification Rally in Austin in January to popularize the idea.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. JOHN STACY (Co-founder, NotInTexas.org): It is time to send a very simple message: Federal government, you've done enough. Stop.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. STACY: Go ahead and pass health care, and we'll nullify it. Pass cap and trade, and we'll nullify it.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. STACY: Pass

BURNETT: Proponents say it works. Just look at all the states that have passed legislation or resolutions opposing the national I.D. law, known as Real I.D., whose implementation has been delayed because of its unpopularity.

Ms. DEBRA MEDINA (Former Gubernatorial Candidate, Texas): You began to push the federal government out of Texas. Push it out. Cut it out. It's not going to go willingly.

BURNETT: That's Debra Medina, the Libertarian, nurse and former candidate for governor from Wharton County, Texas, who was knocked out of a three-way race in Tuesday's Republican primary. She was nullification's loudest advocate, and it remains to be seen how the idea will do without her on the stump. But even she understood lots of people are dubious that nullification is a serious answer to their discontent.

Ms. MEDINA: You're going to have all kinds of legal scholars and consultants that are going to tell you, you can't be a sovereign state. What they're saying to you is, you can't be a free people.

BURNETT: One of those legal scholars who's saying hold on is Sanford Levinson, a constitutional expert at the University of Texas Law School in Austin.

Professor SANFORD LEVINSON (Government, University of Texas, Austin): For a lawyer, nullification means basically that a state can do what the Supreme Court does, which is to say, this law is unconstitutional. We're not going to obey it. End of argument - and that no competent lawyer views that as part of our operating legal system.

BURNETT: There are also skeptics among grassroots conservatives. Greg Holloway, a lawyer and a founder of the Austin Tea Party Patriots, thinks that nullification is a good rallying cry to fire up the troops but ultimately

Mr. GREG HOLLOWAY (Lawyer; Founder, Austin Tea Party Patriots): Nullification is like shooting a water pistol at a forest fire. There's a lot of other ways, if someone finds a federal law to be inappropriate, to address that.

BURNETT: Among those remedies: A state can sue the government in federal court over a disputed law. In fact, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott just did that, challenging the EPA's designation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Journalist Bob Moser has written about the nullification movement in the Texas Observer, and he says it sounds familiar to a student of history.

Mr. BOB MOSER (Editor, The Texas Observer): You know, we have this cyclical re-emergence of people who want to declare states' rights in American history. And the actual history of what's happened when those things have happened seems to escape them.

BURNETT: Like 1957, when President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort nine black students into Little Rock Central High when the Arkansas governor rejected the Supreme Court ruling to integrate public schools.

But the nullifiers say they'd never do anything like that. All they want to do is get the federal government off their backs.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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