The Tennessee General Assembly wants the attorney general to sue the federal government, contending the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the state the right to close its borders to refugee resettlement, and if Attorney General Herbert Slatery won't sue, then the legislature will.
But the legislature will only sue if the speakers of the House and Senate can get legal representation for free - as if the state's legislative body were an indigent client.
If legislators think that a suit against our federal government is required and has merit, then they should absolutely be willing for the people to pay for it, and not let Tennessee and all of its residents become the plaintiff for an activist law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., that wants to challenge the modern limits of federalism.
"This goes down a very dangerous path, essentially opening up our government to whatever band of activist lawyers happens to roll along and want to conduct so-called free litigation for us," said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
The state should be willing to put its money where its mouth is. If we are not, then Tennesseans should conclude that legislators are merely trying to appease those among us who are fearful of immigrants.
A 10th Amendment issue, really?
Perhaps Senate Joint Resolution 467, which the House passed Monday, 69-25, and the Senate approved Tuesday with just four nay votes, is truly a "state's rights" issue.
The 10th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, was integral to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution because it limited the powers of the federal government. It reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
"This is a friendly lawsuit to resolve the issue of consultation in 12 states, the Wilson-Fish states," Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, told the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee in February.
Tennessee is one of 12 states that opted into an alternative means of handling the resettlement of refugees to the United States under the Refugee Act of 1980. In these states, the federal government contracts with private groups to provide coordination and services for refugees under the provisions of the Wilson-Fish amendment to the refugee act - Catholic Charities of Tennessee manages the Office of Refugees.
Rhetoric reveals intent
But the rhetoric around Syrian refugees that dominated much of the debate, in committee and on the floor, calls the constitutional purity into question.
Much of the debate over the resolution occurred in the shadow of the deadly March 22 terrorist attacks in Belgium, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Those bombings killed 32 victims and injured more than 300. Three suicide bombers also died.
"Even if 1,599 refugees are completely safe, it only takes one to do something very heinous," Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, said March 22. "I just don't understand how at this time with all that's going on in the world ... how we could not do everything we can to stop the influx of refugees from countries that we know have ties to terrorism, such as Syria."
Freedom of movement
We should be comfortable in raising questions about the vetting process that Syrian refugees are going through, and our elected representatives are right to hold our government accountable for ensuring the process remains effective.
But we also should be partners in the refugee process.
In reality, it does not matter where a refugee is initially settled because once he is in the U.S., he, like everyone else in the country, is free to move to the place that most suits his needs.
Perhaps we should harken to the testimony legislators heard in December from David R. Shedd, former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency:
"The best way to reduce the risk of terrorism is to assimilate refugees quickly. One of the lessons that we have learned, and that we should be very proud of as Americans, is that we welcome refugees and quickly integrate them into our communities."
Or we can sue.