The Return of the Nullifiers

"You don't have to accept the federalist laws." - Tucson mass shooter Jared Loughner

In this era of polarized politics, it is not surprising that the right is up in arms about the Supreme Court's recent decision on health care. And I do mean -- literally -- up in arms. The Court's ruling, of course, is not the first to be met with calls for nullification and violence. We would do well to remember the unfortunate and deadly consequences of past rhetoric.

Today the issue is health care. In 1954, it was public education when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Following that landmark decision, which called for the integration of public schools, 101 of 128 congressmen from the states of the former Confederacy signed "The Southern Manifesto," which asserted that states were free to ignore federal laws and directives. Eight Southern states passed nullification resolutions declaring the unconstitutionality of the Brown decision. Several of them borrowed language directly from Civil War era secessionist Senator John C. Calhoun in doing so. This demagoguery about "tyrannical" government was accompanied by violence. African-Americans were lynched. White protestors in the South hurled sticks, rocks, and racial epithets at black students attempting to attend integrated schools. They beat up journalists and white individuals who escorted African American students to class. Churches, synagogues and homes were bombed (the Ku Klux Klan bombed so many homes in Birmingham the city was nicknamed "Bombingham").

I am hearing uncomfortable echoes of the past with the response to the June 28, 2012, Supreme Court decision upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Immediately after the ruling, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint issued a press release in which he urged states to defy the federal government by refusing to implement the Act. Since the release of DeMint's statement, governors Rick Scott of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have stated publicly they will not comply with Obama's health care law regardless of the Supreme Court's decision. The Tenth Amendment Center is distributing model legislation to state legislators that would nullify the law. The legislation would make it a crime for any federal or state official, agent or employee to enforce or attempt to enforce the law (they would also be subjected to civil liability). Missouri, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Indiana, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota and North Dakota are currently considering such bills.

It is also disturbing to see calls for defiance to Obamacare referencing the "Second Amendment remedies" ideology of the modern pro-gun movement. Let me be clear. Violence in response to the Affordable Care Act is already more than theoretical. When the Act was being debated in the U.S. Congress, supporters of the legislation were subjected to threats and vandalism. Representatives Betsy Markey (D-CO), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), Vic Snyder (D-AR), Harry Mitchell (D-AZ), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Steve Kagen (D-WI), David Obey (D-WI), Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) were among those who received threats of physical violence. Windows were broken at Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's (D-AZ) Tucson office, Rep. Louise Slaughter's (D-NY) district office, and Democratic Party offices in Ohio, western New York and Kansas. Pictures of nooses were faxed to Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI). Protestors showed up at Rep. Russ Carnahan's (D-MO) home with a coffin.

And it was Gabby Giffords, of course, who was targeted for "assassination" by deranged gunman Jared Loughner in the horrific mass shooting in Tucson on January 8, 2011. "You don't have to accept the federalist laws," Loughner wrote in his online political manifesto. "Nonetheless, read the United States of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws." Loughner's ideology shouldn't be dismissed because he was severely mentally ill. In fact, it is just such a person who is most likely to fall under the spell of a charismatic leader spewing nullification rhetoric. When highly-placed public figures have no regard for the law, what does that say to the average citizen?

It is truly shocking, just a year and a half after the Tucson tragedy, to see continuing calls for violence in response to the Affordable Care Act. Matthew Davis, the former spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, responded to the ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius by sending a blast email in which he wrote:

In 2008, we the people elected Barack Obama as president, and the 100-year progressive trek to tyranny begun in 1912 with Woodrow Wilson's election was complete ... If the Supreme Court's decision Thursday paves the way for unprecedented intrusion into personal decisions, then has the Republic all but ceased to exist? If so, then is armed rebellion today justified? God willing, this oppression will be lifted and America free again before the first shot is fired.

Mississippi Tea Party chairman Roy Nicholson issued the following statement:

When a gang of criminals subvert legitimate government offices and seize all power to themselves without the real consent of the governed their every act and edict is of itself illegal and is outside the bounds of the Rule of Law. In such cases submission is treason. Treason against the Constitution and the valid legitimate government of the nation to which we have pledged our allegiance for years. To resist by all means that are right in the eyes of God is not rebellion or insurrection, it is patriotic resistance to invasion. May all of us fall on our faces before the Heavenly Judge, repent of our sins, and humbly cry out to Him for mercy on our country. And, may godly courageous leaders rise up in His wisdom and power to lead us in displacing the criminal invaders from their seats and restore our constitutional republic.

Mike Vanderboegh, the former Alabama militia leader who inspired the vandalism of Democratic offices during Congressional debate over the Affordable Care Act, responded to the Supreme Court's ruling by writing:

You may call tyranny a mandate or you may call it a tax, but it still is tyranny and invites the same response ... If we refuse to obey, we will be fined. If we refuse to pay the fine, we will in time be jailed. If we refuse to report meekly to jail, we will be sent for by armed men. And if we refuse their violent invitation at the doorsteps of our own homes we will be killed--unless we kill them first.

And then there was National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who was recently visited by the Secret Service after threatening violence against President Obama and Democrats in general. In a July 5, 2012, op-ed in the Washington Times, Nugent decried "Chief Justice Roberts' traitor vote'" in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and wrote, "Because our legislative, judicial and executive branches of government hold the 10th Amendment in contempt, I'm beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War."

Nugent and his fellow insurrectionists are playing a dangerous game. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. It was enacted by duly constituted authority. It was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was signed by President Barack Obama. It was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. There is only one place for frustrated citizens to pass judgment on the wisdom of the law; at the ballot box in November. Calls for nullification, as the Supreme Court noted in Cooper v. Aaron, render our Constitution a "solemn mockery." Such calls also embolden the actions of others who will throw the bricks, sticks, and rocks; issue the threats; and brandish the guns.

In 1958, after the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple was bombed by several men associated with the National States' Rights Party, a white separatist group, then-Atlanta Journal editor Ralph McGill was furious and took pen to paper. "It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it," he warned in an editorial that earned him a Pulitzer Prize. "Let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take the law into their hands." I have little hope that the new crop of nullifiers will heed this lesson, but for leaders of both parties who still love the Constitution and deplore violence, McGill's sage advice is an invitation to condemn those taking us to the precipice of disaster.