Below is my column today in USA Today on some of the state referendum votes last week. While the presidential election was understandably the focus of media commentary, state referendum votes held some surprises. At a time when a majority of citizens view our political system as dysfunctional and unresponsive, these referendums show that citizens can still take direct action in seeking change. Here is the column:
Finally, change we can believe in. Last week, voters came together in a grassroots movement to demand changes in their government and in their lives. No, it was not the Tea Party movement, which imploded in a spasm of gaffes and extremist rhetoric. It was certainly not the “hope” of the Obama campaign, which for most liberals was an excersise of “hope over experience.” Rather, citizens in various states have crossed party and ideological lines to challenge the federal government on issues such as marijuana and gay marriage. In a triumph of federalist principles, states are going their own way on important social issues, but this is not the type of “change” either party wants to believe in.
Ironically, for almost four years, states’ rights have been a focus of national politics as Republicans denounced ObamaCare for its expansion of federal power. Now, many of those same Republicans are opposing the right of states to reach their own conclusions on issues of same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and legalization of marijuana. Likewise, President Obama has spent the past year trying to repair damage with liberals and civil libertarians over his continuation of Bush policies in areas ranging from national security to medical marijuana. Yet, after going silent before the election to win back liberals, the Justice Department indicated the day after the election that it would continue its policies on marijuana.
It is hardly news that principle is a stranger to many politicians. However, citizens across the country still believe in federalism, the idea that their states should be able to choose their own positions on social and criminal issues. They have the U.S. Constitution on their side. The 10th Amendment states that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” James Madison believed that the states were safely behind a federalist firewall to protect against the “ambitious encroachments of the federal government.” Indeed, Madison assured his contemporaries that it would take a “degree of madness” for the federal government to usurp the power of the states. If that is true, we are truly living in mad times.
State politicians have largely yielded to the madness, but citizens appear to have lingering notions of self-determination. In a couple of areas, citizens have fought back and have asserted direct control over their laws and their lives.
Last week, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. In addition, Massachusetts became the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana.
Polls show 74% support medical marijuana. And 56% support regulating pot like alcohol. This makes marijuana one of the sharpest divides between citizens and their government. Despite the fact that only 15% of voters support continued prosecution of medical marijuana cases, Obama has continued the Bush scorched earth prosecutions..
The push by voters for decriminalization is likely only to increase. Washington will allow the sale of pot, which could bring in taxes worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Unless blocked by the Obama administration, that type of revenue (as well as the savings in not prosecuting pot cases) is likely to get the attention of other states in a bad economy.
Despite three out of four citizens supporting the use of medical marijuana, Congress and the White House remain in absolute lock step in expending resources and personnel in the prosecution of these cases. States are expected to adhere to the federal policy regardless of the wishes of their citizens.
Last week, Maine, Maryland and Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, the first such recognition made by voters as opposed to legislatures or courts. They joined New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in the recognition of gay marriage. While the Framers would likely have been surprised by the notion of same-sex marriage, they would have celebrated the role of these referendums. Yet, many conservatives (including self-described advocates of federalism) seek a constitutional amendment to take away the ability of states to recognize such unions.
The effort is even more problematic as an amendment to deny rights as opposed to expand them. Most amendments in the Bill of Rights expanded rights — part of a noble and consistent trend of greater liberties in this country. Faced with citizens who want to expand the rights of their fellow citizens, these fair-weather federalists are moving to stop more states from joining.
Citizens aren’t likely done demanding self-government. Efforts to enact local policy on assisted suicide and deal with global warming issues will continue despite federal policies and laws. This taste for self-determination could become insatiable. Once you realize you have a voice, you tend to want to use it.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
November 13, 2012