Federalism means state, federal governments are a check on each other’s power


By Greg Zoeller
Indiana Attorney General

This Fourth of July will mark my 10th year of service for the people of Indiana working in the Office of the Attorney General. But my career in service to the people of Indiana began much earlier, in 1982, working for then-Senator Dan Quayle in Washington and later in the Bush-Quayle White House as an assistant to the vice president. This experience in the legislative and executive branches at both the federal and state levels provides a unique perspective on the multi-faceted checks and balances that our founders devised. Our founders understood human nature and created this system of checks and balances because they knew that government is not to be trusted.

The resurgence of public interest in our Constitution is brought home to me regularly by people with pocket copies of our founding document, dog-eared and underlined. Almost daily I am asked fundamental questions on the limits of the federal government’s authority, the proper role of the state and the protection afforded individual rights and liberties enshrined within the Constitution. Never in my wildest imagination did I dream I would see such remarkable widespread interest in the fundamental principals of our democracy. For me, it’s a great time to be Indiana’s attorney general.

Distrust in government is a fundamental reason for the tensions designed within this system of government known as federalism. Although times have certainly changed since the founders wrote our Constitution, systemic checks within government remain necessary. One is that state and federal governments properly check one another’s authority. Our president and Indiana’s governor have both brought changes through the exercise of authority. Legal challenges to this authority should not be seen as against a particular policy or political, but as part of the healthy checks and balances of federalism.

Recent events provide several examples. I have joined my fellow state attorneys general in an appropriate and respectful legal challenge to test whether Congress has the authority in the federal health care act to require individuals to purchase private health insurance. The federal government has challenged in court Arizona’s immigration statute, and has argued against Indiana’s new statutes on Medicaid provider qualifications and immigration enforcement. I see litigation between the state and federal governments as part of the healthy tension that protects our system and the people, who are the true source of authority.

I’ve met with a number of my attorney general colleagues from other states who are similarly attuned to the public’s interest in our Constitution and the growing number of conflicts between the states and federal government. I argue that now is the time for states to take a greater role in serving to check the federal government’s exercise of its limited authority. This healthy check on authority is part of our role in federalism and helps protect our states and the people we represent. But it also protects Washington from itself. Congress has delegated great authority to regulatory bodies, which for too long have gone unchecked.

State governments need to play a more active role in asserting their broad state authority – and if the federal government disagrees, it can bring a legal challenge to check that use of state authority. After all, we in state government must act in the best interest of the true sovereigns, the people. Federalism, by definition, cannot be solely left up to those in Washington, DC.

So on this Fourth of July, celebrate federalism as part of what protects the freedom and liberties we enjoy.

Greg Zoeller is Indiana attorney general. Prior to his being elected attorney general in 2008, he had served in the agency since 2001 as chief deputy A.G.