Commentary: Sometimes politicians embarrass a state more than it deserves

The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-EnquirerMarch 7, 2013 

In the contest among certain states to see which can do the most embarrassing political face plant, Georgia continues to be among the leaders. The Peach State's latest sweepstakes entry (well, maybe not the latest -- let's not discount the possibility that something even stupider has emerged) is … drum roll … a nullification bill.

Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, has sponsored House Bill 352 -- a gem of 21st century statecraft that would create a 10-member commission to decide which federal laws Georgia must abide by and which it can ignore.

"Neither the state nor its citizens shall recognize or be obligated to live under such statute, mandate or executive order," the bill stipulates.

Maybe you thought this question had been settled in the Great Unpleasantness of 1861-65; and if not then, surely in the civil rights confrontations of a century later. Not for some, it seems. "It's a doctrine I believe is valid," Spencer told Morris Service. Clearly we're dealing with one of the keenest political minds of the 1950s. Or maybe the 1850s.

Go ahead and call this what it is -- an Obama Bill, just like "birther" bills and secession resolutions and all the other childish tantrums in which red state demagogues over the last five years have been cutting off their noses and spiting our faces.

If the word "nullification" is familiar, you're past a certain age or have a pretty good grasp of 20th century American history.

It's the principle (if you want to dignify it with that word) by which George Wallace and Ross Barnett and Orval Faubus argued against full citizenship, and even full personhood, for black Americans … in the language of "rights." As in, we have the "right" to nullify any federal law (like, say, the Constitution) that threatens to disrupt our "way of life" or our "heritage."

It's what Atticus Finch was up against in "To Kill a Mockingbird" when he proved beyond any doubt that Tom Robinson didn't rape Mayella Ewell, but watched a white jury convict his client anyway. Accepting the word of a black man over that of a white man -- even if that white man was a notoriously noxious bag of swamp gas like Bob Ewell -- just wasn't thinkable.

And it's almost certainly the approach Johnnie Cochran relied on in the O.J. Simpson murder trial (no irony there) when he convinced a jury that the verdict should hinge on race, not DNA.

Listening to Obama-era reactionaries invoke the terms and tactics of mid-20th century segregationists, and then insist with straight faces that it has nothing to do with race, is a study in surrealism. It's as historically absurd as hearing Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford parrot the language and cadences of monumental civil rights principles … in furtherance of the lofty objective of keeping a dog track open. Mayor Ford, you're no Martin Luther King.

Neil Kinkopf, who teaches at Georgia State University law school, called federal authority "the most thoroughly settled question in constitutional law." If states choose to dispute Washington, Kinkopf said, they do it through the courts.

That's what Shelby County, Ala., is doing now in its Supreme Court challenge to the "pre-clearance" provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whether you agree with Alabama's case or not -- and I think there are credible arguments on both sides -- it's being decided in the proper venue.

The federal government, in the context of voting rights and the South, is sort of like the teacher who makes everybody stay after school because a few kids are misbehaving. If you're not one of the guilty ones, you have reason to be mad at the teacher. But the ones you really ought to resent are the miscreants who caused the trouble in the first place.

Alabama's lawyers in Washington had better hope nobody on the high court is paying attention to this ridiculous effort to channel Marvin Griffin back here in Georgia.

Dusty Nix: dnix@ledger-enquirer.com

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