Arizona's secession-lite plan

A ballot measure in Arizona would allow citizens or the state government to opt out of federal laws

Published July 6, 2012 5:41PM (EDT)

If Jack Biltis has his way, Arizonans may soon get to pick and choose which U.S. laws they don't want to abide by, like a buffet of federalism.

Biltis submitted over 320,000 signatures last night to place on the November ballot a referendum that would allow Arizonans "to reject any federal action that they determine violates the United States Constitution,” as the ballot measure reads. Assuming Arizona’s secretary of state affirms that at least 260,000 signatures are valid, voters will soon be going to polls to consider whether they should empower themselves to nullify federal laws. Given the strength of anti-Washington sentiment in the state, which has developed a reputation for whacky right-wing policy experimentation over the past few years, it seems entirely plausible that the referendum could have a decent chance of passage.

Biltis, who owns a payroll processing business and says he’s invested “a large amount of my personal fortune on this,” says the overreach of the federal government is personal for him. “In my old homeland, I’ve seen the government grow and take away freedoms and ruin business and ruin communities,” he told KJZZ. Lately, “I’ve seen the government growing out of control and it looks like familiar signs,” he said. Biltis is from Montreal, Canada. “I’ve seen, literally, my father-in-law die at the hands of socialized medicine,” he explained.

Indeed, the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is the “flagship” example of why the law is needed, he has said, but also points to some Republican-backed measures like the Patriot Act. Federal overreach also comes in more quotidian varieties, like speed limits and the ban on incandescent light bulbs. "Besides the insanity of it, if you have a federal government that can choose to ban a light bulb that has existed for 100 years, that served us pretty well, what can't they do?" he asked reporters.

The scheme would provide two ways in which Arizona could opt out of federal laws: Either the state Legislature could pass a law or citizens could collect enough signatures to bring a ballot measure.

Anyone who has taken a high school civics class could tell you the measure probably wouldn’t stand up in court, as the federal government has supremacy over the states. Arizona’s constitution even spells this out, stating clearly: “The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land and may not be violated by the federal, state, or any local government.” But that doesn’t deter Biltis. "I believe the Supreme Court completely got it wrong," he told reporters of the Affordable Care Act ruling. In fact, he said he disagrees with the entire concept of judicial review, first established by the 1803 Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, which allows courts to strike down federal laws.

His effort, which is apparently popular enough to attract 320,000 signatures in Arizona, is related to a wide pushback against the federal government's power tied up with the Tea Party and embrace of the 10th Amendment. But this ballot measure would go much further than most other Tenther proposals, essentially sanctioning the philosophy of sovereign citizens -- radical anti-government activists who believe they can unilaterally secede from the the state, stop paying taxes and live by their own rules.

Biltis actually sounds relatively reasonable and says he would not want his proposal to be used by people looking to dodge taxes or for other “light hearted” fair, but it’s a slippery step once states can opt out of federal laws. For instance, he acknowledges that states could opt out of anti-segregation laws, but says he’s confident that wouldn't happen.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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Arizona U.s. Constitution