It’s reported that President Obama will change the name of Alaska’s highest peak from Mount McKinley to Denali.  But wait, does the President have constitutional power to rename mountains?

Almost certainly not.  (And, even worse for him, the name McKinley appears to be incorporated into a statute.  And, even worse than that, apparently there have been legislative efforts to change the name, sponsored by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, that have failed).  So the President’s authority must come from Congress.  And indeed there is something called the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that (according to its website) was “established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.”  So I assume the Board has delegated authority to decide on the name, and the President has directed the Board to make this decision.

But wait, does Congress have constitutional power to rename a mountain?  In the general case, I’d say no.  Obviously it’s not an expressly enumerated power, and I don’t see how mountain names are sufficiently related to any enumerated power (even interstate commerce) to make their renaming “necessary and proper” to carry such power into execution.  That being the case, shouldn’t place name be reserved powers of the states?

In this case, though, the mountain is on federal land.  Perhaps, then, Congress’ power comes from Article IV, Section 3’s power to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the territory and other Property belonging to the United States.”   In the alternative, the Board on Geographic Names might argue that it is simply deciding what the federal government will call the mountain, not regulating what others may call the mountain.  Indeed, the Board’s website insists — somewhat hollowly, I think — that its job is “standardizing (not regulating).”  But I would think it something of a stretch for the Board to “standardize” a name to something to which the local state authority objects.

Sadly, though, there’s apparently no material for a federalism dispute here.  Alaskan authorities have been trying to rename the mountain Denali for years … blocked by the federal representatives from Ohio (McKinley’s home state).  So the renaming is a triumph of federalism, in a sense; whatever part of our federal system is in charge of deciding on the name of a mountain in Alaska, it surely isn’t Ohio.

NOTEThis post was originally published at The Originalism Blog, “The Blog of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism at the University of San Diego School of Law,” and is reposted here with permission from the author.

Michael D. Ramsey
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