Just how sovereign ARE the US states?

In this thread on the proliferation of police forces in the US, there is some discussion of the sovereignty of US states. In 2012, as applied in practice, in what ways do the powers of US states compare to that of sovereign nations? I would be interested in an answer for the Canadian provinces, the countries within the UK, the states of Germany and Australia, and other federal systems. I know the states levy taxes and pass laws, but so do other entities such as cities that make no claim to sovereignty.

I assume this has been done many times on this board, but I didn’t find anything super-relevant in a search.

A long and complicated question.

States can

  • Levy taxes (which you noted).
  • Pass and enforce criminal law as well as civil ordinances (a distinction between local jurisdiciton and states).
  • Raise militia, including National Guard units (the federal government also has the power to levy existing National Guard units).
  • Oversee and regulate state entities such as medical and legal organizations.
  • Employ Eminent Domain (cities cannot generally use this, and when they do so use a power granted to it by a State).
  • Make legally binding agreements with other states.
  • Define who is allowed to get married (though the federal government and other states may not recognize some state granted marriages)

But when cities do it, they’re just exercising power given to them by a state. The states create local government and decide what power it has. States can levy taxes and pass laws all on their own, without needing to find the power to do it somewhere in a federal law.

For some of this, I don’t see how the powers are equivalent to sovereign nations. This is probably because I’m dense, so by all means explain it to me like I’m five. I won’t take offense.

Regarding raising the militia, is a state militia actually empowered to leave the state? Unless they are, it seems as if this is not a sovereign power but one limited by the federal system, more like a military-style police force than a country’s military.

For a lot of it, it seems like the sovereignty is entirely based on the way the system is imagined. Cities can only levy taxes because the state grants them that power. Well, couldn’t I equally say states only have the power to levy taxes because the federal goverment grants it? In the case of, say, Nevada, which was never a soverign nation, it only has those powers because the USA has decreed that that’s part of a state’s duties within the system. I will grant that taxation and eminent domain seem like the best parallels to the powers of independent nations, followed by regulating professions.

Counties, cities, and other local governments are entirely dependent on their state for any authority or powers they have. (Hmm, I say that, but I wonder if there’s any old colonial cities with powers derived from a crown charter that their state cannot remove.)

The federal government also derives its powers from the states, as granted by the Constitution. The states collectively can also remove or change the powers of the federal government without approval of the feds. Congress can propose amendments, but the states can do so as well. And the states must approve all changes.

The states can unilaterally change their own constitutions without permission of anyone but their own citizens, although the Constitution places limits on the states (republican government, incorporated clauses, etc).

And ultimately, the states derive their sovereignty from the people themselves. They’ve simply delegated many of their powers to the states, and then the federal union.

No, because (10th Amendment) powers not delegated to the Federal government are reserved to the states. States can tax because they have an inherent right to do so; the Federal government can only tax because they are given that authority in the Consitution. And the states had to agree to give the Federal government that power. They gave it, and they could take it away, by amending the Constitution.

In the matter of criminal law, the State and the Federal government have equal authority to prosecute crimes, and, so does each individual affaected state. See the case below. You’ll note that the US Supreme Court states that the State’s power to try a criminal does NOT come from the Federal government, it is inherent, and equal to the Federal government’s.

"It has been uniformly held that the States are separate sovereigns with respect to the Federal Government because each State’s power to prosecute derives from its inherent sovereignty, preserved to it by the Tenth Amendment, and not from the Federal Government. Given the distinct sources of their powers to try a defendant, the States are no less sovereign with respect to each other than they are with respect to the Federal Government. "
HEATH v. ALABAMA, 474 U.S. 82 (1985).

No, this is the part where your preconceptions are breaking down. States don’t get powers from the federal government. States automatically have their all of their power because the state is the primary unit of government in the U.S. The restrictions that the states have on their powers are supposed to be limited only by the U.S. Constitution which is not the same thing as the federal government. Cities and everything underneath the state level of government are dependent on the state to give them those powers. Likewise, the federal government also derives its powers from the states and not the other way around.

As a practical matter, the majority of laws that affect citizens on a day-to-day basis are state laws. We don’t always notice it that much because states tend to copy each other but there are 50 separate states in the U.S. that could each make themselves quite different from one another if they wanted to.

On reread, Pleonast said it better than I did.

Article One, Section Ten, Clause Three of the Constitution actually forbids the states from having “troops”- I don’t know exactly how that is defined, especially today. In theory the National Guard units are armed civilian volunteers who serve part-time on a temporary basis rather than professional soldiers, but the boundaries have become blurred.

This is one of those cases where the states have granted power to the federal government to regulate some aspect of their sovereign character, namely the raising of troops, since it is widely agreed that having some sort of national military framework would be a good idea. Both the National Guard and state militia (which are not subject to federalization) are organized under US federal laws for this reason.

As the above posters mentioned, if the states were dissatisfied with this arrangement, they could amend the Constitution to alter or eliminate it.

It’s important to remember that despite the vast powers enjoyed by the federal government, it is a creature of the states. It was created by the states’ collective ratification of the Constitution, and remains, in a sense, subordinate to them.

Okay, I see what you all are saying. It seems, however, that this is a legal argument, and a rather technical one. The states are sovereign because they are, by definition, sovereign, and the federal government only has powers at the behest of the states, because that’s what the Constitution says.

In practical terms, however, it seems to me that the states do not act as sovereign entites. Moreover, since amending the Constitution or opting out of it is beyond the power of any individual state, it seems that the individual states cannot assert sovereignty except as allowed by a majority of the federation of states [the ability to disagree with other states in amending the Constitution is another example of sovereign powers, I suppose]. It seems to me, then, that in practical terms, given the situation as it prevails in 2012 under the Constitution as currently amended and enforced, the actual execution of sovereign powers by the individual states differs greatly from the theoretical ability of a given US state to act as a sovereign state.

I guess the whole existence of the US Senate is sort of an expression of the individual states’ sovereignty, as well, as opposed to the Reps which is a bit more US-as-a-whole-by-population, though still not crossing state lines.

There is certainly an argument to be made that over the course of the past two centuries, de facto sovereignty has shifted to the federal government as the result of its expansion of power, the incorporation of various bits of the Bill of Rights via the federal courts, and certain unpleasantness in the 1860s. And you’re right that states can’t act alone with regard to changing the Constitution. Nonetheless, the states do ultimately retain that power.

Dr. Drake, I think you’re getting confused about sovereignty and power.

Consider the United Kingdom. Although the Parliament holds almost all of the power, it has no sovereignty. That is held solely by the monarch. Despite the monarch being nearly powerless, the Parliament must still act in her name, because that is where the sovereignty is.

In the United States, it is more ambiguous. The states and the federal government share sovereignty. And share power. But the states could legally take back as much power and sovereignty as the like from the feds, who can do nothing to stop it (legally that is, politically would be a different story). So, no matter how much power the federal government has, it is dependent on the states.

You’re right. I guess the question in my mind is how much power the states exercise that is parallel to soverign nations (say, Ghana or Nepal).

I’m always really embarassed when I start GQ threads, because they make me look like an idiot, but I do learn a lot.

One thing I was wondering lately: Can the US states have secrets that they do not share with other states OR the feds? Classified documents, a spy service, etc.?

Cities generally can exercise the right of eminent domain due to the inherent police powers of a municipality. It is frequently done, and most vexatious when property is condemned ostensibly to promote the general welfare (even if it is not slum property), but the property is then sold to a developer. A recent case upheld that right.

In addition, most states have granted “home powers” to the municipalities: A municipality can enact a law that has only local effect as long as the state has not preempted the field. For example, a municipality can ban cigarette smoking in public places as long as the state has not enacted a law covering smoking in public places.

There is a hierachy of sovereignty: The federal government is at the top. The states’ sovereignty cannot override the federal government’s sovereignty. (A state cannot enact a law which is contrary to a federal law.) Municipalities’ sovereignty is subject to both the states and federal government.

It depends what you mean by secret. State courts can seal documents and testimony according to state law. Police investigations and grand jury proceedings are of course secret by their very nature. Agents of state governments are not going to go around being James Bond, as that would be a clear violation of the federal government’s monopoly on foreign policy and diplomacy.

Likewise, the generally accepted role of state military forces precludes them from executing clandestine operations since they don’t operate on foreign soil. Federalized national guard troops are of course operating under the control of the federal government so that doesn’t count.

That is not what sovereignty means. See Pleonast’s post above.

In no way.

A US state is to the the USA approximately as a US county is to the state in which it is located.

Really? Can the federal government unilaterally establish and abolish states? Can they unilaterally redraw the borders of states? Can they alter, abolish, or combine state governments? Can the federal government remove elected state officials and take over administration of a state? Can the federal government remove a state’s taxing authority, confiscate its treasury and take over its finances? Can the federal government rescind the corporate nature of a state government, or its ability to issue debt? Can the federal government grant or remove all legislative and executive powers of a state?

No, they can’t. But state governments can do all those things and more to their counties and other municipalities.