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What Happens When States Defy Federal Laws


President Trump's trip to California happens as his Justice Department is suing the state over its immigration policies, claiming that federal immigration law has to be enforced. In 1957, President Eisenhower famously called out the National Guard to enforce court-ordered desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Ark., explaining his decision in a nationally televised address.


DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: With deep confidence, I call upon the citizens of the state of Arkansas to assist in bringing to an immediate end all interference with the law and its process.

MARTIN: Supporters of the Trump administration's lawsuit say the situation in California is similar to the defiance of Arkansas. But, is it? We put that question to NPR's Cokie Roberts as part of our regular Ask Cokie segment. Hey, Cokie.


MARTIN: All right. Our first question today comes from Twitter, from Carolina Espanal (ph). She writes, quote, "if states deem a federal law unconstitutional are they still required to enforce it, and where does this leave the Supremacy Clause?"

ROBERTS: The Supremacy Clause. It's the part of the Constitution that says that the federal government, when acting in pursuance of the Constitution, basically trumps, so to speak, state governments. But then there is the 10th Amendment to the Bill of Rights that says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people. And there have been court cases all along the way, and some say that the federal government cannot commandeer states to enforce laws they disagree with. In the Arkansas case, Eisenhower federalized the National Guard so they were no longer state agents.

MARTIN: OK. That gets us to our second question.

JEREMY DAYNOR: My name is Jeremy Daynor (ph), and I'm from Raleigh, N.C., and I would like to know what the difference is between this lawsuit and the one where the state of Arizona was sued over SB 70.

MARTIN: Cokie?

ROBERTS: It was actually 1070. And the Justice Department says there is no difference. But California disagrees, saying that in Arizona the law mandated actions in contravention to federal law and that in California what the law does is simply tell enforcement officers not to act. For instance, not to tell the feds about release dates of immigrants in prison. And the state claims that the federal government insisting that they do so is commandeering. So the Supreme Court will have to work this one out.

MARTIN: All right. So our next question has to do with the impact of state laws on the federal government. So let's listen to this.

JERREL NILSON: Hi. This is Jerrel Nilson (ph). I'm from Eugene, Ore. I wondered, what examples are there where a majority of states enacting a similar law or set of laws eventually produced federal legislation?

ROBERTS: Well, the best example I can think of is the 19th Amendment, granting women the vote. Several Western states had come into the union with women's suffrage in the late 19th century. Then more adopted it. But still the struggle before passage of the amendment and then ratification in 1920 was very, very difficult. Regardless of the federal government, however, several organizations urged the states to write uniform legislation so that there are not different laws in every state with a whole hodgepodge of enforcement.

MARTIN: All right. Let's get to our last question here.

JENNIFER SANTANA: Hi Cokie. This is Jennifer Santana (ph) from San Jose, Calif. I'm curious about the politics of states' rights. I feel there used to be a strong inclination from the right to leave it up to the states. But has support for states' rights actually been more about issues rather than party?

ROBERTS: Well, of course for much of our history, it was regional. The South was for states' rights, the North for federal rights. And it was mainly around the issue of slavery and then later around civil rights. The Mountain West is also very protective of land rights, among others. The parties do pretty much shift according to what they agree with. So yes, in the modern era, it's more about issues than party.

MARTIN: All right. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie. Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.