About  |  What You Can Do

Thomas Woods, in his new book, Nullification, pp. 137ff, has this to say about the proposal of Jon Roland for a nullification commission:

Jon Roland, whose Constitution Society website has garnered over 100 million page views, proposes a state "Federal Action Review Commission," an institution that might first be established in one of the states where awareness of constitutional issues is relatively higher. The commission's rotating membership would be drawn from a pool of constitutional scholars compiled by some branch of the state government. It would meet with great frequency, perhaps even weekly, and be charged with the task of reviewing recent congressional legislation for constitutionality. Should a federal law be found unconstitutional, the commission would declare it so, and issue an edict ordering state officials not to cooperate in its execution. Citizens of the state would be urged not to cooperate. A state fund would be established to provide legal support to those who refused their cooperation with an unconstitutional federal law.28 A radical step? No doubt. But since nothing else has worked, and pursuing the same failed strategy again and again holds little promise, what alternative exists? Plenty of people make nice salaries writing think-tank reports, some of them quite good, about the benefits of freedom in this or that area. Isn't it time to supplement all the report-writing with vigorous, constitutional action in the tradition of Jefferson? It can scarcely be doubted where the Sage of Monticello's sympathies would lie if he had the misfortune of seeing what had become of his country.

We cannot know in advance how Roland's proposal would work out in practice. On the one hand, the historians and legal scholars who would be chosen for the commission would by and large be drawn from professions dominated by people who think things are just fine, and that the federal government's present size and activities are perfectly in line with the Constitution. But there are some mitigating factors. This lame result would not occur in all states. In places like Texas, as well as in the West and Pacific Northwest, enough sensible and knowledgeable people could well be appointed to make things interesting. And these days, enough uneasiness exists about certain federal actions that even conventional legal thinkers might be willing to consider taking a stand against them especially if an informed and angry population urged them to do so.

Roland suspects the following outcome. In a state like Texas, where a critical mass of the population may, in fact, understand the constitutional issues at stake, the commission would nevertheless start out timidly, declaring unconstitutional only the most egregious but still relatively minor federal activities. The very fact of declaring any federal action to be unconstitutional, though, would provoke debate and discussion among the general public. Faced with the possibility that something real might actually be done about federal lawlessness for a change, the public may well demand still more such findings, thereby emboldening the commission further. This momentum would undoubtedly spread to other states, where candidates for office may even find it in their interest to champion the constitutional cause.

Roland suggests that immediately using the commission for the purpose of large-scale constitutional challenges could backfire, in that it could lead to the suppression of the commission itself. It should proceed more gradually, he says, in tandem with popular support and education. How rapidly or cautiously such a commission should proceed ultimately depends on the status of public opinion in each particular state, and the degree to which the people of that state are willing to make a stand against violations of the Constitution. Either way, it is a worthwhile step forward to keep the idea of constitutional limitations on government before the general public on a regular basis. The very existence of such a commission would strike at the superstitious reverence Americans are taught to have for the federal government, portrayed in all our textbooks as a benevolent force innocently pursuing the common good. It would suggest that the federal government is, as Jefferson taught, something to be on guard against, not the glorious source of costless benefits granted by selfless crusaders for justice. There comes a time to put away foolish things. Now is that time.

28. Jon Roland, "Nullification is a Serious Option," Austin American-Statesman, February 8, 2010; available at http://www.statesman.com/opinion/nullification-is-a-serious-option-221199.html. My summary of Roland's views also derives from personal correspondence dated January 24, 2010.

privacy policy