What were they thinking?: 'States' Rights' bill introduced by Smith and Chism misguided and sure to evoke ridicule

January 25, 2013 12:20:21 PM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Education has been one of the dominant themes in this year's Mississippi legislative session. Although the methods vary, the one thing all parties agree on is that Mississippi's educational system is broken. Most often, a deficiency in math and English skills are cited as being areas of particular concern. 


On Thursday, state representatives Gary Chism and Jeff Smith, both from Columbus, made a compelling argument that history and civics should be added to that list of areas in need of dramatic improvement. It is a lapse in education that applies not just to our kids, but even extends to the state house apparently. 


Unwittingly, Chism and Smith emphasized these flaws by introducing a bill that would be comical were it not for the fact that it touches on a painful part of U.S. and Mississippi history. 


House Bill 490, referred to by its authors as The Balance of Powers Acts, would allow the state to form a committee to "assert the sovereignty of the state." 


In presenting this bill, Chism and Smith show an appalling lack of knowledge of how our government works and the history behind its evolution and a disturbing insensitivity to Mississippi's own dubious history of applying wrong-headed state's rights arguments in its fight against the Civil Rights movement. 


The word "sovereignty" in Mississippi should strike a dissonant chord with anyone with a basic knowledge of Mississippi history. 


In 1956, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was created by the Mississippi Legislature in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Court held that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The "sovereignty" the state was trying to protect was against federal enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965, Voting Rights Act, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. 


Reached Thursday afternoon, Chism said he was motivated to present the bill in an effort to combat any impending federal legislation that would affect gun ownership and implementation of the national healthcare program known generally as the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare." 


The reactionaries of the 1950s saw Civil Rights as encroaching Communism. Today, reactionaries such as Chism and Smith see gun reform and health care as encroaching Socialism. Have we really made so little progress? 


For his part, Smith seemed to assert his First Amendment rights to not make a further ass of himself by speaking to the media. Calls to Smith Friday were not returned. 


In addition to their abysmal ignorance -- or perhaps indifference -- of Mississippi history, Chism and Smith seem to have hardly any knowledge of how our government works. 


Their argument is based on a flawed interpretation of the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which establishes that any powers not explicitly given to the federal government are reserved for the individual states.  


The debate about the balance of powers between the federal government and the states is as old as the country itself. Hamilton and Jefferson fought bitterly on the subject and the debate was not resolved until the 1860s, when more than 600,000 Americans died in a Civil War that not only abolished slavery but established that federal law, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, could not be nullified by state law. 


Time and again, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the federal government's preeminence where conflicting laws are concerned. 


Chism and Smith seem to have at least some vague understanding that the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter to such disputes.  


In their bill, should the Supreme Court "get it wrong," Mississippi could remedy the error through a "state referendum." In other words, Mississippians could vote to secede from the Union.  


Fortunately, our state government has a remedy for such nonsense. The bill would have to get through committee and then face a vote in the House. 


In other words, this bill is Dead on Arrival. Or, it well should be. 


In the meantime, you can be assured that the bill will again hold Mississippi up to ridicule. 


It should be particularly embarrassing to citizens of Columbus and Lowndes County, which happen to be the homes of the bill's sponsors. 


Will Columbus soon be known as the "Cradle of Kooks?" 


If this is an example of the kind of representation we can expect from Chism and Smith, it seems likely. 


Chism and Smith have that Constitutional right to be buffoons. 


The people they represent have a right to distance themselves from those who perpetrate this sort of foolishness. 


Maybe a call to Chism and Smith would be the best expression of that right. 


Chism's phone number at the legislature is 601-359-3364. Smith's number is 601-359-3343.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]