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Nullification in One Lesson

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“There’s not much attention paid to the Constitution in Washington. There’s not much attention paid to it by our executive branch of government. And we don’t get much protection from our courts. So one thing that might finally happen from this if the people finally feel so frustrated that they can’t get the results out of Washington — They’re going to start thinking about options. They might start thinking about nullification and a few things like that.” – Rep. Ron Paul

NULLIFICATION?

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of state nullification, it was the idea expressed by then sitting vice president Thomas Jefferson when he authored what came to be  known as the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. The resolutions made the case that the federal government is a creature of the states, and that states have the authority to judge the constitutionality of the federal government’s laws and decrees. He also argued that states should refuse to enforce laws which they deem unconstitutional.


James Madison wrote a similar resolution for Virginia that same year, in which he asserted that whenever the federal government exceeds its constitutional limits and begins to oppress the citizens of a state, that state’s legislature is “duty bound” to interpose its power and prevent the federal government from victimizing its people. Very similar to Jefferson’s concept of nullification, Madison’s doctrine of interposition differed in some small but important ways.

These two documents together came to be known as The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (or Resolves), of 1798. Both were written in response to the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts, and the phrase, “Principles of ’98″became shorthand for nullification and / or interposition. Over time, “The Principles of ’98″ would be invoked by many other states, many times for a variety of issues.

A LITTLE MORE

But in order to best-understand what Nullification IS, you should first understand some things nullification is NOT.

Nullification is not secession or insurrection, but neither is it unconditional or unlimited submission. Nullification is not something that requires any decision, statement or action from any branch of the federal government. Nullification is not the result of obtaining a favorable court ruling. Nullification is not the petitioning of the federal government to start doing or to stop doing anything. Nullification doesn’t depend on any federal law being repealed. Nullification does not require permission from any person or institution outside of one’s own state.

So just what IS nullification and how does it happen?

Nullification is any act or set of acts, which has as its end result, a particular federal law being rendered null and void, or just plain unenforceable in your area.

Nullification often begins with members of your state legislature declaring a federal act unconstitutional and then committing to resist its implementation. It usually involves a bill, passed by both houses and signed by your governor. In some cases, it might be approved by the voters of your state directly, in a referendum. It may change your state’s statutory law, or it might even amend your state constitution. In this case, it is quite simply a refusal on the part of your state government to cooperate with, or enforce a particular federal law it deems unconstitutional.


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The same process can happen on a local level too. Your county board of commissioners or city council might take up a measure that rejects or resists a federal law. Once it gets passed, all local agencies might be required to refuse compliance with any federal agents trying to enforce the federal act in question.

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