Just how sovereign ARE the US states?

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.

Remember I said “appoximately”, OK?

It unilaterally established WV during the Civil War.

Otherwise I have never heard of such an occurrence, and if it does occur
it is so infrequent as to be insignificant.

See above.

Isn’t the correct analogy the ability of the Federal Goverment to impeach and convict elected Federal officials?

See Civil War.

Otherwise I have of this analogously occurring recently in Michigan. If an entire state
were to become as dysfuctional as, say, Detroit, legal means could probably be found
to lover its admistration. At least I hope means could be found.

Taxing authority is heavily circumscribed by the Constitution. No state customs duties for example.

Michigan again? Anywhere else since the last states were admitted? How often since 1791?

I do not know what this means.

You mean if Michigan tried to put itself in hock to the tune of the entire US GNP times 10 or so?
I have a feeling the US goverment could find a legal way to limit Michigan’s ability
to that extent.

Michigan again? Anywhere else since the last states were admitted? How often
since 1791?

I’ll get to thje spoiler later, but OP was concerned with comparison with true,
nation states, and the finnicky bullshit you have come up with does not change the fact
that the US states bear no resemblance to such.

Nor do they need to.

U.S. states do not operate much like sovereign nations today because they don’t need to. However, your analogy of a U.S. state being equivalent of a state county is completely flawed if not flat-out wrong. Lots of people visualize it that way however but that doesn’t any more true. The U.S. is set up as true federalist system and not a top-down hierarchy. The only thing that prevents U.S. states from acting more like sovereign nations is they have found that binding together and copying success from one another is more productive than trying to be unique but there isn’t anything in the Constitution that prevents radical differences.

One easy to comprehend example of that is that the U.S. president is not the ‘boss’’ of the state governors and Congress is not above the state legislatures. They each have their roles and the governor of a state is a chief executive that answers to no one except for the people of that state.

States can and do disobey federal laws all the time when they don’t think they are justified. Marijuana is completely illegal for personal use everywhere in the U.S. according to the U.S. government but don’t tell that to the states have made medical marijuana legal. That is just one example of many.

Visualize the U.S. as a simple tree with branches coming down if you want but you will be completely incorrect in practice in theory.

Technically not. Technically, WV was established by the “Reorganized Government of Virginia”, which the federal government recognized as the authorized government of Virginia.


Actually, the West Virginians did.

It doesn’t occur, because it is specifically prohibited by the Constitution unless the states concerned agree with it. No such agreement is necessary where a state wishes to redraw the boundaries of its municipalities, since municipalities are not sovereign entities and the state’s power to create and abolish devolved governments is absolute.

No. The analogy you drew is that the relationship between the federal government and the states is similar to that between the states and their counties. A state government has absolute power to create and abolish county governments, and remove and appoint administrators of those governments. The federal government has no such power over state governments.

The prevailing legal theory amongst the Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction Era was that the former Confederate states had given up their shared sovereignty upon secession and were now conquered federal territory. That’s why each one had to go through a process of readmission to the union. The merit of that theory is highly debatable, but that’s what happened: the former Confederate states were not considered to be states of the union at the time of their administration during Reconstruction.

What legal means? We live in a country that is supposed to operate under the rule of law. You can’t just “hope” that some legal means exist; if they do, you should be able to point to something in the Constitution or precedent that says the federal government can do this.

Actually, taxing authority of state governments is barely restricted by the Constitution at all. That’s why they can levy income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, capital gains taxes, vice taxes, fuel taxes, and pretty much every other kind of tax you can think of. Not poll taxes though; those are illegal due to a Constitutional amendment ratified by the states.

I don’t understand what you’re saying here. Do you have a legal theory under which the federal government could abolish and confiscate Michigan’s treasury? Do you understand the difference between a US state and a devolved government in a federal territory?

It means that states have a legal “personhood” that allows them to act as an individual to enter contracts, petition the courts, sue people and be sued, and so on.

Please share how this would happen. A feeling is not good enough for a fact-based forum. (It’s largely moot anyway, since nobody would buy Michigan’s bonds if they were to do this.)

There’s certainly interesting arguments to be had about the extent to which US states are sovereign and what the precise meaning of shared sovereignty is and so forth. If you want to explore that, fine. But your analogy comparing the relationship between the federal government and the states and the relationship between the states and counties is completely and entirely wrong.

Technically, it (that is, the federal government) didn’t.

What happened was–the existing government of Virginia proclaimed that the state had unilaterally seceded from the Union (as had several other states at that time), confirmed by a popular referendum. The federal government of the day decided that this (unilateral secession) was unlawful and unconstitutional and was a rebellion or insurrection against the lawful authority of the United States. After the secessionists opened fire on a U.S. military installation (Fort Sumter), Lincoln called for the loyal states to provide troops to supress this rebellion.

Meanwhile, in Virginia–specifically in the very far northern part of the state, in Wheeling, in what is now West Virginia–conventions of Virginia citizens opposed to secession met and declared that the actions of the state government were unconstitutional and illegal and that the offices of the state government were therefore vacant. A new government, the “Restored Government of Virginia” (which I’ll call the RGVA) was therefore proclaimed, to act as the state government for the entire state of Virginia (including the areas of the modern state of Virginia and of the future West Virginia). In practice, the previous state government (which had in the meantime joined the Confederate States of America) continued to exercise actual control over most of the state; Unionist forces never lost control of the areas directly adjacent to Washington, DC, and much of what is now West Virginia remained in Unionist hands–in much of that northwestern area, the popular vote had been against secession–and under the control of the RGVA.

Even before the outbreak of the war, there had been intra-state regional tensions in Virginia and calls for the creation of a separate state in the northwestern areas; the RGVA therefore recognized the results of a popular referendum held in areas which it controlled late in 1861 to create a new state, eventually named West Virginia, which was duly admitted by Congress as a state of the Union with its own state government. The RGVA continued to exist as a rump government loyal to the U.S., ostensibly governing all of Virginia which had not been ceded to the new state of West Virginia, but in reality operating (to a limited extent at least) in areas which remained under Union military control throughout the war (e.g., the city of Alexandria).

There was precedent for a state government consenting to the division of its state and Congress then admitting the new state–before 1820 Maine was part of Massachusetts. That said, there were undoubtedly some questionable aspects of the whole thing. But it was more complicated that the federal government just unilaterally dividing a state into two states, which would indeed be unconstitutional.

As others have pointed out, you don’t get it at all.

In fact, lots of countries have some degree of sovereignty at sub-federal levels. Canadian provinces have, in any sense that matters, essentially the same sovereignty as U.S. states.

What gives an entity sovereignty is the ability to set law in a manner that cannot be legally superseded by a greater sovereignty. An entity must have some degree of paramount, supreme authority of some kind. And in some areas, U.S. states and Canadian provinces do, in fact, have unchallengeable authority.

Consider this; the State of New York cannot legally be subdivided, changed, dissolved or ejected from the United States of America by the federal government. They’re stuck with the State of New York. Forever. And certain state power simply cannot be taken away, ever. There are legal grey areas but the existence and central rights of the State of New York are something the government of the United States cannot change. That is a degree of sovereignty.

But by comparison, the CITY of New York has no sovereignty whatsoever of any kind. As a day-to-day matter the City of New York exercises great power (it’s a substantially bigger government than many states) but every single power it has, and its very existence, is at the pleasure and whim of the State of New York. of the State government decided to dissolve the City of New York, they could do it. If they decided to take away some kind of right or power from cities, they could do it tomorrow. There’s no ultimate legal barrier; the State of New York could, on Monday, decide to split New York City up into its old five boroughs, or divide into ten cities, or almost anything, and although there’s be legal fights, ultimately they can do it. But the feds cannot dissolve the State of New York.

Indeed, in my home, the Province of Ontario, the provincial government, which exercises some sovereignty, unilaterally eliminated dozens of municipal governments a few years back to create “megacities.” Toronto is an amalgamation of six component cities; those cities were simply wiped from existence with the stroke of a pen. Many other municipalities were eaten up and merged into Hamilton, Kingston, Ottawa, Sudbury et al. They had, ultimately, no choice in the matter. But the government of Canada cannot legally dissolve the Province of Ontario, or merge it with Manitoba, becauyse it possesses legal sovereignty in accordance with the Constitution.

Is a U.S. state or a Canadian province AS sovereign as a totally independent nation state? No. But it has SOME sovereignty, by definition.

Good post RickJay. I don’t think we are all a bunch of state’s rights fundamentalism on this board but I do get gravely concerned when people show profound ignorance of the way that federal systems work. It is the most successful system ever invented but it requires some nuanced understanding that many people don’t seem to be capable of.

I do worry that this type of simplistic thinking just leads to a more direct top-down approach just because that is what people today can most easily understand on a chart.

I can’t believe that I am just now learning this. I know, I know, they probably taught me in high school and in college, and I understood it somewhat in a fuzzy sense, but I never really grasped it in as clear a detail as this thread has provided.

Indeed, an understanding of our federalist system is vital to understanding the constitutional debate over the PPACA insurance mandate—which we’ll be discussing quite a bit this month, I predict.

On another element of state borders: while a certain area is a territory, not admitted as a state, the Congress does have the power to redraw its borders, or accept admission only upon a change in borders. The state of Nevada had its land area expanded after admission by having land taken from the federal territories that would later become Utah and Arizona so as to make it reach the waters of the Colorado. That would not have worked had the other two already been states.

Modern political speech does tend to tie together sovereignty and independence as inseparable/identical and as absolute binary all-or-nothing qualities. But you can do things by degrees and with overlapping sets. The “People of the United States” as sovereigns in the broad sense, through their representatives, agreed to pool together into the union * some* key attributes of sovereignty and the powers to exercise them uniformly across the different states, in the territories, and abroad.

In the process of ratifying the Constitution, joining states do accept as part of the terms that only by agreement of a supermajority of the several states can they further change the terms of that contract: they retain the fundamental ability to alter the powers of the federal entity, but deliberately make it so it requires a lot of support from the other states so they don’t do so capriciously. The one time when there was a serious attempt to just tear up the contract and walk out unilaterally, well, it went rather badly.

Another significant difference - in Canada, all criminal law is federal. (IANAL, I speak in generalities here… etc. etc. other disclaimers for the picky). The same law applies to all of the country. Things like traffic laws are provincial, you can be fined, I believe there are some other trivial offenses that are provincial laws - but the laws about murder, theft, fraud, etc. are federal Criminal Code. AFAIK this is the same in almost every other country. (Except, IIRC, England, Scotland, etc. have different criminal law, i.e. Scotland had the jury verdict not proven… and various common law distinctions buried in history.) Most central governments that I recall reading about keep strict control of the crime business to themselves. (What’s the deal in Germany nowadays and historically?) Consequently, the idea of extraditing someone from one province to another simply means buying a plane ticket for him and the police escort.

The USA, OTOH, has 50 distinct criminal jurisdictions, and a federal government that jumps through legal hoops to create federal crimes out of some actions that should be strictly state business according to the constitution. (like charging murderers and others with “violating civil rights” or invoking the “crossing state lines” bit whenever they need to assert jurisdiction.) IIRC from a previous thread, even counties and cities can create criminal laws in the USA?

Nothing says “I’m in charge here” like ability to make rules that toss people in the clink.

No murderer gets charged with civil rights violations unless they were in a position to violate someone’s civil rights, meaning they were a police officer or government agent of some sort. That sort of prosecution is pretty unusual.

If they are given that power by the state, they can. It’s highly unusual for a municipal legislature to be able to criminalize things beyond the range of civil infractions, in my experience, though. Even misdemeanors are defined by the state statutes.

That is the difference between Canadian style Federalism and US Style Federalism, the former is more common world over, while the later is mostly a US and Australia thing.

What about the German Staaten? I thought that entities like Bavaria enjoy pretty distinct identites in their federal system.

Except by the Commerce Clause. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’d argue that unless a state has the ability to make a treaty with or declare war on, say, France, it can’t really claim to be sovereign. Not that they would declare war on France, but the ability to do so is surely an important part of sovereignty.

I was always taught that sovereignty required three things:

  • The power to tax its citizens
  • The power to make treaties with all other sovereign countries
  • The power to declare war on all other soveriegn countries

I don’t think anyone is arguing that U.S. states are fully sovereign, only that they possess some elements of sovereignty. They clearly have the power to tax their citizens, for example.

Again, the widely held conflation of sovereignty and independence. Sovereignty in the US is a conceptual legalism as mentioned above, about the polity being able to rule itself by laws that cannot be overrode without its consent, and it can be partially delegated. The states are legally considered to have original sovereignty, and to have voluntarily surrendered the exercise of part of (1) and of all of (2) and (3) to a federal government (* that is not alien to them* since its legislature is elected by the very same people, and its executive by electors selected by each state). By ratifying the federal Constitution with its supremacy clause, the states give advance consent that the federal policy will have precedence over the state policy on matters germane to the federal Constitution, and the debate becomes what is and is not in the federal constitutional jurisdiction.

Polities can remain legally sovereign and independent while binding themselves legally to follow the policies of a common greater union e.g. EU; they can be fully independent while sharing some symbolic attribute of sovereignty in a personal or crown union, e.g. the Commonwealth Realms; they can give up full independence and delegate exercise of some major powers of sovereignty onto the union e.g. USA; they can retain symbolic sovereignty and distinct legal personhood while completely surrendering all attributes of independence and of operational sovereignty to the union (e.g. many federal states in the world). And there’s probably a few other forms that I have not counted there.

Who taught you that? Sovereignty is generally defined as the power to define one’s borders, defend those borders, and be the supreme lawmaking authority within them.

The power of taxation is really just a subset of the power to make law.