The near-showdown in Texas did not break any new ground in the nullification debate. The Texas House of Representatives passed a law that made the touching of genitals or breasts by TSA personnel illegal and punishable by fines and imprisonment. The federal government responded by citing the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, together with a threat to cancel all air travel to and from Texas if the law were passed by the Senate and signed by the governor. The Texas Senate backed down. The crisis was averted – for the moment.
For most, attention was probably focused on the threat to close down air travel. Indeed, this would have been a huge crisis, with economic ramifications far beyond Texas. However, the more important issue here is the constitutional one. The federal government states as if it were fact that under the Supremacy Clause “Texas has no authority to regulate federal agents and employees in the performance of their federal duties or to pass a statute that conflicts with federal law.” Does the Supremacy Clause really say this? Let’s take a look. It says,
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
For those not familiar with the Constitution, that’s it. There are no further provisions explaining what is meant. There is no list of definitions of the various words, as one might expect to find in a contract today. Whatever “supremacy” the federal government claims to have must be found in this one sentence.
Perhaps a fast read might lead one to believe that the last section of this clause settles the question definitively. It says that the judges in every state shall be bound be federal laws “any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” End of debate, right? The Texas law conflicts with the federal law, so the federal law trumps it. This is what the federal government would like you to accept – without question.
There is only one problem for the Feds. Their interpretation of the “Supremacy Clause” is based completely on the last section of this one-sentence provision and entirely ignores the first. One would think that if they were going to cite this clause, then reading the entire sentence would be a reasonable expectation.
So what exactly is “the Supreme Law of the Land?” Any law passed by the federal government? That’s not what the Supremacy Clause says. It says that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof” shall be the supreme law of the land.
Note the word “and.” There are two separate and distinct things cited as the supreme law of the land. First, “this Constitution.” That means that the terms and conditions of the Constitution itself, together with any amendments made to it, are the supreme law of the land. Therefore, anyone violating any part of the Constitution, including its amendments, would be violating the supreme law of the land.
Next, take note of the description of the federal laws which shall possess this supremacy. They must be “pursuant to” the Constitution itself. This means that the federal law in question must have as its basis a power granted to the federal legislators. The Constitution, for the most part, grants powers rather than makes specific laws. It tells the federal government which type of laws it may pass. It may not pass any laws for which it has not been granted the necessary power to do so. To eliminate any possible confusion on this point, the framers added the Tenth Amendment. It states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Many well-meaning citizens and not-so-well-meaning federal legislators think about the Constitution in a backwards manner. They assume that unless the Constitution forbids the federal government from exercising a particular power, then the federal government may exercise that power. Exactly the opposite is true. The starting point of ones reasoning should be that the federal government may pass no laws whatsoever. Then, Article 1 Section 8 provides the sole exceptions to that general rule. Only laws which exercise powers specifically delegated in that list may be passed.
However, the argument against the TSA does not rely upon employing this reasoning, because the activities of the TSA not only constitute powers not delegated to the federal government, but powers forbidden to the federal government by the Constitution itself. The Fourth Amendment states,
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
One could argue that the mere presence of the word “unreasonable” is enough to prohibit the touching of genital areas during a search. If that is not unreasonable, then what is? Dissection? However, the last part of this amendment makes any debate about what is reasonable unnecessary. It says that in order for the government to conduct a search of anyone’s person, house, papers, or effects, there must be a warrant “supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This means that the government may not search everyone who comes through an airport. In order for them to search anyone at all, there must be probable cause that the person has already committed a crime. Does this mean probable cause in the opinion of the person conducting the search? No. An impartial judge must determine that there is probable cause and issue a written order (a search warrant) confirming that probable cause and naming the specific person to be searched and the specific items that the search will be conducted to find. Only then may an officer of the federal government search an air traveler.
Therefore, the laws authorizing the TSA to search everyone who wishes to board an airplane are in direct conflict with a specific provision of the Constitution. In other words, they violate the Supreme Law of the Land.
Now, when someone breaks a law, they are subject to arrest and prosecution. That raises the question: Who has the power to arrest and prosecute federal legislators or officers who pass and enforce a federal law that violates the Supreme Law of the Land? That power is not delegated to Congress nor the Executive. The Judiciary is only empowered to hear cases arising “under the Constitution,” and to adjudicate controversies regarding “the Laws of the United States.” No one is disputing that the TSA personnel are following the federal law – it is the law itself that is disputed.
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing in Article 3 of the Constitution that empowers the federal judiciary to decide whether or not a law is “constitutional.” They merely usurped that power early on, to the repeated and valid objections of anyone with an honest concern for liberty, beginning with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – the latter being the man who actually drafted the Constitution in the first place! Both of these men and many others afterwards have recognized the clear absurdity of allowing any party to be a judge in its own case. That is one of the fundamental reasons cited for man leaving the state of nature and forming government in the first place.
The constitution provides clear direction on where power lies if it is not expressly delegated to the federal government – with the States or the people. The power to arrest and prosecute those who pass and carry out laws in violation of the Superme Law of the Land is not delegated to the federal government. Therefore it must reside in the States or the people. Nullification is constitutional. Let justice be done.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.