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States are the laboratories of democracy

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Our founders realized that the best way to form a long and lasting Union was to give the power for self-governance and determination to the states. The federal government is paramount only with regard to its enumerated powers as set forth in the Constitution and as legislated by Congress within that authority.

Our individual states and territories have the commonality of a federal association with the uniqueness of separate and distinct state identifications. The United States of America is made up of different and unique states. That is our greatest strength. What is good for California is not necessarily good for Kentucky, and vice versa. The ability for states to run their own affairs including economies, healthcare, education, social services, business, etc. at the state and local levels makes them more accountable to the people they serve.

With the recent and ongoing challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing more clearly than ever before the need for states and local governments to best respond and care for their constituents as they see fit. President Trump knows full well that holding and binding all states and territories to federal standards of response is untenable and unconstitutional. Now more than ever is it important to honor the Constitution in a national crisis than abandon it.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis was the first to popularize the phrase that states “are the laboratories of democracy.” Justice Brandeis in his dissent in the 1932 case of New State Ice Co v. Liebmann stated that: “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” This is exactly what we are seeing today with the way the president has deferred to the states and territories to care for their own populations with the federal government ready, willing and able to add its support as necessary and within the bounds of their authority and responsibility.

Some governors, mayors and elected officials have pushed back on their duty and responsibilities to their constituents claiming in one breath that it is the federal government’s obligation to set forth “national policies” binding on all states and territories and in the next demanding “home rule” to determine their own destinies free from federal edict or oversight.

Justice Brandeis and the president agree that our states — because of their diversity — are the best place for novel solutions to complex problems. A state that finds a better way of doing something for their own population can be a model for dealing with similar challenges by other states. Dividing and conquering can be a smart strategy. It is better to have 50 states working separately and together at a time of crisis than sitting back waiting for “one size fits all” solutions dictated from a federal government that surely is not tailored to the individuality of the states that comprise the Union.

We are seeing states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut banding together to form alliances to regionally deal with the challenges of the pandemic. This is a good thing and smart governance.

The president has given great latitude and deference to states and local governments — and as a result, we are seeing a much better response. The federal government has responded to the needs of states and local governments as a complement to them and not as a burden on them.

Our government works best when it works as intended. It is too easy to pass the buck or duck responsibility. President Trump is living up to his oath as president to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” when he rightfully expects states to run their own affairs. There is only so much the federal government can and should do for states in normal times and at times of emergency.

A duty owed to all is a duty owed to no one person. This finding is also known as: “The Public Duty Doctrine” and it defines the duty that governments have to the public. There cannot be a cop and/or fireman in every home to prevent a crime or a fire. Government has a duty to the public at large not necessarily to each individual person for the purpose of shielding them from harm or to be held liable for harm to them. The same can be said for the federal government’s duty to all 50 states and territories. There is only so much the federal government can and should do and be responsible for.

Now is the time for all states and territories to come to the aid of their constituents. They need to try to solve their own problems in their own ways. In doing so, they will become the laboratory of democracy Justice Brandeis described. Not only will they be helping their own, but they will be helping the nation as well get through this time of crisis and be the better for it.

Bradley A. Blakeman was a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. A principal of the 1600 Group, a strategic communications firm, he is an adjunct professor of public policy and international affairs at Georgetown University and a frequent guest on Fox News and Fox Business.

Tags Constitution of the United States Coronavirus Coronavirus response COVID-19 Donald Trump Federalism in the United States

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