In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. When determining the extent of federal power, the tie goes to the states and the people.
Anytime there is the possibility of ambiguity in a rule, there has to be some agreed-upon way to resolve potential disputes.
In baseball, if the runner reaches a base before the ball, the runner is safe. If the ball reaches the base before the runner, the runner is out. But what happens if the ball and runner arrive at the same time? What happens if it’s unclear whether the runner was out or not? Under the rules, the runner gets the benefit of the doubt. This creates a uniform way to resolve any dispute.
Interpreting federal power in the Constitution can lead to similar ambiguity. Some powers were clearly delegated to the feds, and some powers were clearly left to the people of the states. But what do we do in the event of a dispute? How do we decide who exercises the power if the delegation of that power seems unclear?
St. George Tucker was a prominent jurist in the early years of the republic, and he wrote the first systematic commentary on the Constitution. Tucker gave us a rule of interpretation to resolve any dispute about questions of power. In effect, he said a tie goes to the states and the people. The people of the states always get the benefit of the doubt.
“The powers delegated to the federal government, are, in all cases, to receive the most strict construction that the instrument will bear, where the rights of a state or of the people, either collectively or individually, may be drawn in question.”
In other words, if there is any doubt about whether the federal government should do something, the answer should always be no. The rights of the people should always trump the powers of the federal government.
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