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Under shadow of 1957, Arkansas stays out of health-care fight

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

LITTLE ROCK -- As 14 states move forward with a lawsuit to block President Obama's new health-care law, calling it an unconstitutional infringement on state sovereignty, Arkansas is nowhere to be found.

"They tried it here in Arkansas in '57 and it didn't work," Gov. Mike Beebe (D) told reporters recently. "I think you got to tell people the truth. And if I understand the law, the truth is the federal government can't just be defied by the state governments."

There are memorials here to the events of 1957, when a previous Arkansas governor rejected federal authority and tried to prevent nine black students from attending all-white Little Rock Central High School. It took U.S. soldiers to protect the students, who made history during an epic struggle over racism and federal power.

To Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D), the lawsuits filed last week and a states'-rights measure proposed for the November ballot are unwelcome echoes. In the face of an implicit request from 33 Republican state legislators to enlist in the court fight, McDaniel remains unmoved.

"I would be abusing my office to bring a suit that I believe to be constitutionally frivolous," McDaniel said in a telephone interview. "State budgets are tight enough right now without bringing actions that are entirely driven by political motivation rather than sound legal justification."

The Arkansas experience in the 1950s rubbed the state raw and delivered a resounding defeat to segregationists, who made arguments similar to the ones launched by opponents of the Democratic-led health-care overhaul.

The central issues, according to many "tea party" protesters and Republican lawmakers, are personal freedom and state sovereignty and the role of the federal government in both spheres.

As Virginia legislators debated a law making it illegal for Congress to require the purchase of health insurance, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) called Obama's proposals an "onslaught on our liberty."

"In seeking to protect the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution," Cuccinelli wrote in this month's American Spectator, "we are vigorously pursuing freedom for our citizens in the face of a government that, no matter how well intentioned, seeks to expand its power at citizens' expense."

In 1956, two years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the concept of separate but equal, every member of the Arkansas congressional delegation signed "The Southern Manifesto." It declared that the court had abused its power and encroached "on rights reserved to the states and the people."

Parents, the manifesto said, "should not be deprived by government of the rights to direct the lives and education of their own children." The changes were happening "without regard to the consent of the governed" -- a mantra of tea party protesters and Republican members of Congress who voted against the Democrats' health-care bills.

Also in 1956, Gov. Orval E. Faubus (D) was quoted as saying that "neither the state of Arkansas nor its people delegated to the federal government . . . the power to regulate or control the operation of the domestic institutions of Arkansas."


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