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Cockeyed Agenda

Jan 12, 2015

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful local electrician, which is a good thing if you live in an almost ninety-year-old house. He works hard and knows what he is doing. If a job is too much for a single man or his skills, he is honest enough to tell me.

He is a true professional. That puts him a cut above a number of new members of the latest Michigan legislature.

This week, our lawmakers, about a third of whom are new, start work. Two of the most prominent new members are Tea Party stalwarts Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat.

And they are vowing to start their careers by wasting our time and money by introducing something they call their “Life at Conception Act,’ which, as I understand it, defines an embryo as a human being from the moment the sperm fertilizes the ovum. This would have the effect of turning any abortion into murder, no matter how early in a woman’s pregnancy.

That may be theologically defensible in some circles, though this concept, sometimes called a “personhood amendment,” hasn’t been politically popular when submitted to the people.

Voters in Colorado, South Dakota and even Mississippi have overwhelmingly rejected personhood amendments. But that’s not the main reason Courser and Gamrat shouldn’t be doing this.

They should not be introducing such a bill because trying to change national law isn’t something a state legislature can do. We pay our legislature to consider and make or reject laws for the state of Michigan, to approve budgets, to make public policy.

There are a lot of things individual states can do, and they have a lot of latitude to govern themselves differently. But states cannot pass laws that conflict with federal ones.

Neither state legislatures nor Congress can pass laws that conflict with the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court is the final interpreter of what that Constitution means.

Forty-two years ago, the nation’s highest court ruled that a woman has a right to choose an abortion. That means unless and until the court reverses itself, or the states pass and ratify a Constitutional Amendment banning abortion, that procedure is legal.

If a “Life at Conception Act,” does pass both houses and is signed by Governor Snyder, you can bet that it will be immediately hauled into the nearest federal court, where it is likely to be ruled null and void by whatever judge happens to be sitting there.

You cannot defy federal authority. It would be equally ridiculous for a liberal legislature, if we had one, to pass a law overruling the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that there can be essentially no limits on corporate campaign spending.

Years ago, Bill Ballenger, who later became a journalist, served briefly in both houses of the legislature.

He told me once that he read our state constitution carefully and read the Michigan Manual to learn all he could about state government before he ran.

Many lawmakers clearly don’t do that today. Michigan has a whole galaxy of problems, from roads to prisons to education funding, that legislators can and should do something about.

Tilting at windmills is best left to Don Quixote.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.