Almost every semester in one of my courses at LSU, I discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s a passage, however, that we always overlook: “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
I’ve never stopped to explain what King meant by “interposition” and “nullification.” Perhaps I should, because my students and the rest of us may soon hear those words – or ones much like them – from Gov. Bobby Jindal if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that anti-same-sex marriage laws violate the U.S. Constitution.
Interposition and nullification are legal terms predating the American Civil War, most forcefully advanced in 1832 by Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina during his feud with President Andrew Jackson over the imposition of protective tariffs on British imports. Southerners hated the tariffs, labeled them unconstitutional and feared that a powerful federal government might one day use its authority to abolish slavery. In November 1832, a South Carolina convention declared the federal tariff acts “null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State.”
Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and argued that when states determined that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers, they could “arrest the execution of the act within their respective limits.” The 1833 federal Force Bill proved Calhoun wrong.
More than a century later when King spoke of “nullification,” he evoked the political descendants of Calhoun who thundered about undermining federal authority – this time, enforcement of court rulings on desegregation. That sentiment was most brazenly expressed in the notorious 1956 Southern Manifesto, signed by 101 Southern members of Congress, which branded the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling a “clear abuse of judicial power.”
You’d think that given the stigma of being labeled a “nullifier,” politicians – especially the Southern variety – would be wary of flouting federal laws or the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
Well, you would be wrong. Look no further than Alabama, where that state’s chief justice openly defies a federal court ruling on same-sex marriage. It’s happened in Louisiana, too. In 2010, Jindal signed legislation declaring the Affordable Care Act unenforceable in Louisiana.
We don’t know how the Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage, but Jindal already hints how he might respond if he doesn’t approve: He will support interposition and nullification.
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