Are States Required to Help the Federal Government’s “War on Terror”?

Last month, Virginia enacted a law forbidding state officers, including police, from helping the federal government investigate, surveil, or detain terrorist suspects who are U.S. citizens. This may or may not be good policy. David Rivkin and Charles Stimson argue it’s also unconstitutional. They write:

It trenches on the federal government’s war powers and violates conditions under which Virginia and other states have received billions of dollars of federal funding. It has dangerous symbolic and practical consequences and undermines the cooperation necessary to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda plots on our shores. . . .

The Virginia legislation, and similar legislation in other states, violate the U.S. Constitution. It has nothing to do with states’ rights. It is a dangerous mistake, perpetrated by groups and people who misunderstand detainee law, including the NDAA, or who, since Sept. 11, have viscerally opposed the laws-of-war paradigm. Whatever their motivations, they are wrong, and their efforts should be strongly opposed.

This is an odd argument. It’s black letter law that the federal government may not “commandeer” state officers to enforce or implement federal law. This is true without regard to the purpose of the requirement. If a particular federal policy is that important, the federal government can expend its own resources and direct its own officers to implement and enforce the law. This is true even if, as Rivkin and Stimson maintain, that Virginia’s legislation is premised upon mistaken assumptions about what federal law authorizes or requires.

Rivkin and Stimson imply that Virginia’s new law violates conditions imposed on funds Virginia willingly accepted from the federal government. Maybe so, but this does not make Virginia’s law unconstitutional. It just means Virginia may have to give up some federal funds, provided that the conditions were clear when Congress authorized and Virginia accepted the relevant funds. There is no general requirement that states enforce all federal policies just because they accept some federal funds. And just because a policy is enacted pursuant to the “war on terror” does not mean that states have to go along.

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