Constitutional Crisis Over the Ten Commandments?

This is a small story that has been brewing for quite a while, but may turn out to be very significant: Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court says that he will not obey a federal court order requiring him to remove a 3,500-pound monument to the Ten Commandments from Alabama’s Supreme Court Building. Moore was a trial-court judge who became famous a few years ago for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom; he ran for Chief Justice and was elected; he then had the monument erected. Here it is:
Under the Supremacy Clause, part of Article 6 of the Constitution, federal authority is ultimately superior to a state’s: “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, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
When state officials in the South openly defied federal desegregation orders in the 1950’s, President Eisenhower mobilized the National Guard to make them comply. That was the last time, to my knowledge, that the federal government faced an outright challenge to its authority by state officials. In principle, the same result should follow here; right or wrong, the federal court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of the display of the Ten Commandments is binding on the Supreme Court of Alabama.
But it is hard to imagine President Bush (or, really, any President) sending out the National Guard to forcibly remove the Ten Commandments from a courthouse. So we could have a very interesting Constitutional crisis, with a determined state judiciary pitted against a federal government that has little enthusiasm for enforcing the mandate of its own court. The problems of slavery and race relations were the grand backdrop against which the issues of federal and state power were fought out over the course of more than a century. One would have thought that the Civil War and the civil rights sequel had settled those issues once and for all. Yet the current controversy suggests that with the context of race relations absent, and the federal judiciary adopting a far less politically popular position, the practical implementation of the Supremacy Clause may not be a foregone conclusion.
DEACON adds: Any chance that the Supreme Court will stave off a crisis by reversing the lower court’s ruling that displaying the Commandments is illegal? Probably not much of one. Meanwhile appeals court nominee William Pryor has issued a statement that he would “exercise any authority provided to me” to bring the state into line with the federal court order. Pryor’s sentiments are correct — the federal court’s decision is binding and should be followed, as Rocket Man says. Pryor’s statement also maximizes his chances of Senate confirmation. However, as Rocket Man suggests, the reality is that there is no “authority provided” to federal judges to bring states into line with their orders That’s up to the President.


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