A group of workers votes to unionize but are immediately fired and blacklisted by employers. Commodity prices shoot through the roof, driven by the consolidation of suppliers into unregulated monopolies. Gaunt-faced children in Appalachia scavenge for food, while elderly adults with no income watch rain leak through their roofs. Same-sex couples are arrested for violation of state anti-sodomy laws. Impoverished defendants in criminal cases are provided no legal representation, and arrestees are given no suggestion of their legal right against self incrimination.
Just over a century ago, this was the reality in the United States. While today’s college students grew up in a time when Miranda rights seem like standard procedure and Social Security and Medicare are often seen as untouchable, our parents and grandparents did not. Some of the individual legal rights and government provisions we take for granted grew out of relatively recent Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress, such as the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut upholding a constitutional right to privacy or the Fair Labor Standards Act requiring fair and safe working conditions. Beginning with the election of the “trust-busting” Teddy Roosevelt, accelerating with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society and bolstered by liberal majorities on the Supreme Court for much of the 20th century, our federal government has made great strides toward accomplishing the goal of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
However, a newly emboldened conservative majority on the Supreme Court is already rolling back this progress under the guise of states’ rights, benefiting the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of economic security and individual rights for all Americans. Those who value the past century’s progress must mount a vigorous defense of federal power, or be prepared to witness it slowly crumble away under a unified conservative legal assault.
To understand the origin of this constitutional battle, it is important to note that our country, like many others, is a federal republic, with constitutionally enumerated powers for the federal government, reserved powers for states and concurrent powers shared by both. Unmentioned in the Constitution is that much of the debate about the allocation of these rights focused on one in particular: the right to own slaves. For much of our history, states used the justification of states’ rights to limit the liberties of our nation’s most vulnerable residents, allowing them free reign to enslave African Americans and later to control them under Jim Crow laws. It wasn’t until the 1954 Brown v. Board decision that the Supreme Court finally interpreted the 14th Amendment to mandate a concept that today seems self-evident: states must provide their citizens with equal protection under the law. Today, many of the individual rights we enjoy, including the recent legal victories for same-sex marriage, rest on this foundation.
While civil liberties are important, equally as critical are federal laws providing a basic level of economic security. During the Gilded Age, the Supreme Court ruled many such attempts at labor reform unconstitutional, such as a nationwide minimum wage or laws limiting child labor. With states unwilling or unable to address these concerns, income inequality ballooned to the highest levels in American history. It took a gradual expansion of federal power, beginning with progressive reforms such as the introduction of the income tax and antitrust laws and continuing with the introduction of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, to reverse this trend. The scale and uniformity required of these efforts means that they can never be effectively undertaken by the states; only a strong federal government, operating under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce, can effectively ensure that the American dream is not just an idle promise.
Unfortunately, efforts to erode the power of the federal government to protect individual rights and guarantee economic security are likely to accelerate with the looming appointment of a President Donald J. Trump-picked conservative to Supreme Court, whether it’s Brett Kavanaugh or someone else. This would cement a conservative majority on a court which has already shown a willingness to roll back previous decisions in favor of federal power. United States v. Lopez, which struck down gun-free school zones, was the first of several cases to place substantial limits on federal ability to regulate interstate commerce. In the 2016 Shelby County v. Holder, the court found provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, giving certain states free rein to impose discriminatory voter ID laws. A continuation of this trend would be a grave error and would allow for a confusing and discriminatory patchwork of state laws to take precedence over constitutionally guaranteed individual rights.
This is not to say that Congress and the Supreme Court can distort the Constitution for expediency or to meet their personal viewpoints. However, just as our nation has shown a continuous capacity to grow and evolve in pursuit of a “more perfect union,” our governing document must similarly be interpreted to meet the demands of an increasingly tolerant, diverse and connected society, the likes of which could scarcely be envisioned by our founding fathers. A strong federal government, operating within the bounds of its constitutional authority, is essential to maintaining the dignity and welfare of all this nation’s citizens.
Andrew Kliewer (20c) is from Dallas.