As some COVID-19 lockdowns begin to lift, life may look vastly different depending on where you live. In some states, freedom is returning. But in others, big government reigns supreme.
The handling of COVID-19 in the United States has brought a renewed commitment to federalism with each governor making decisions tailored to their state. While the system is, in some sense, working as intended, it’s also been a clarifying moment for the country.
The federal government made the right decision to refrain from a national lockdown, especially because it can’t do so. The Framers of the Constitution recognized the dangers of having a central government with too much power, which is why they created a new form of government—a government with a foundation of federalism.
The federal government was designed to be just powerful enough to take care of the country but restrained enough to ensure that individual liberty could not be infringed upon. The U.S. Constitution outlines the enumerated powers of the federal government, but everything else is off-limits. Thus, the majority of government power lies with the states.
In this case, the states have the power to combat COVID-19. This is essential because the situation in one state may be completely different from another. The situation and response in New York or California, with over 100,000 cases, are far different from Montana or Wyoming, which have less than 1,000 cases. By allowing a state to enforce its own policy, another state can observe how that policy works and evolves. Something may work for one state, but it may not work in every state.
This is how the system was designed to work. States and their political subdivisions are closest to the people, which arguably leads them to have a better understanding of what their citizens need. That’s not to say everything has been perfect.
Across the nation, some states and local governments have gone overboard, taking actions that come close to or blatantly violate various red lines. Although the protection of public health and safety is crucial, it is not a pass for states or local governments to infringe on civil liberties or fundamental rights.
The system is designed to allow state and local governments a lot of power with a certain degree of leeway, but that power is not unlimited. It is restrained by the U.S. Constitution, which serves as a check against excessive power moves and egregious policy experimentation. Or at least it’s supposed to.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, instances of government overreach have caught the attention of U.S. Attorney General William Barr. While directing U.S. attorneys to watch out for violations of individual rights, A.G. Barr added, “the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.” It is imperative that the rules of and protections within the Constitution are upheld, crisis or not.
The Texas Supreme Court recently agreed with this, reminding cities that there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution. The Texas Supreme Court opinion went on to say, “[a]s more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”
This message should be heard loud and clear by states and local governments who are continuing to infringe on civil liberties and fundamental rights. America was built on the foundation of “we the people” and it’s that foundation that Americans have the opportunity to stand up for themselves and protect their rights. Just as federalism protects us from an encroaching federal government, the people can also protect the U.S. Constitution from overreaching state and local governments.