case highlights the balance of power between the states and the federal government
-- an issue as old as the country itself.
Throughout the last 10 years,
the current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist with a majority
of conservative judges, has slowly reduced Congress' ability to pass laws that
intrude on matters traditionally handled by states,
including gun laws and laws about violence toward women.
In 1995 the high
court said Congress was limited to passing laws on only certain topics, including
raising taxes, declaring war and interstate commerce. This strengthened the doctrine
of "federalism" -- the rights of states to decide certain matters for
Legal experts say that the medical marijuana case is especially
interesting because the doctrine of federalism -- often used by conservatives
to keep the centralized federal government out of local issues -- is now being
used by liberals.
Bill Stuntz, a professor of criminal law at Harvard University,
points out that although conservatives want to limit the scope of government in
everyday life, their alignment with federalism grew out of specific historical
circumstances. From Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights
Act, the federal government was more active than state governments and Congress
was under almost unbroken Democratic control for half a century. That meant conservatives
had to look away from Washington, to the states, to curb some of the federal laws.
not inherently conservative. It cuts against whatever side is on top in the national
government, and now that's the right, not the left," Stuntz told the Boston
some Supreme Court watchers think conservative justices, who have upheld states
rights in the past, will argue that the right of the federal government to regulate
the drug trade trumps a state's right to legalize marijuana for sick people.
Scalia and Justice Kennedy, two justices who have been part of that five-justice
majority to strike down other laws in the past, suggested today by their questions
that perhaps the mere possession of this kind of marijuana, the personal use of
it and growing it in your own home, that could also affect commerce because that
means you're not out buying the drugs on the market," Chicago Tribune Supreme
Court reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg told the NewsHour.
"So that could
have some impact on commerce that may be enough to allow Congress to step in here,
pass this federal law and regulate this kind of drug use," she added.
by Annie Schleicher, Online NewsHour