Whenever there's a major rift on a particular issue between state and federal government, extreme partisans will invariably question whether it's in all parties' best interests for the state to remain in the Union. In other words, couldn't a state simply secede if it cannot find an accommodation within the law?
Take the recent example of the clash over Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law. Throughout the course of the debate over Arizona's controversial law, SB 1070, signed into law in April 2010 which gave police to screen for undocumented immigrants, the secession issue has been raised by voices on both sides of the political spectrum. Suggestions included not only separating Arizona from the United States, but also dividing Arizona into two different states, an idea that has some support based on an online poll released last year.
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Can a state unilaterally secede from the United States? The short answer is no. (That happens to be the long answer, too, but it comes with an explanation.)
Prior to the Civil War, there was an open debate about the nature of the union among the states. As Slate's Sam Schechner noted in 2004, the debate in 1830 between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne hit at the heart of the issue: Were the states parts of a whole? Or independent entities bound by treaty?
The Civil War settled the issue, particularly with the passage of the 14th Amendment, as Schechner notes, which defined for the first time citizenship on federal grounds instead of belonging to the states. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has even addressed the constitutionality of secession and how a state would go about it in a letter to a screenwriter who posed the question:
To begin with, the answer is clear. If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. (Hence, in the Pledge of Allegiance, "one Nation, indivisible.") Secondly, I find it difficult to envision who the parties to this lawsuit might be. Is the State suing the United States for a declaratory judgment? But the United States cannot be sued without its consent, and it has not consented to this sort of suit.
States may not be able to legally secede from the Union. But that doesn't mean they don't have the ability to affect the total number of states in the Union. As TIME magazine reported when the state secession issue reemerged in national media coverage in 2009, Texas, for example, has the right to split into five different states. Other states have seen their fair share of partition proposals over the years, but none have really gained steam.
A partition, however, wouldn't have the same implications as a secession. The state, now states plural, would still remain the sovereign territory of the United States, instead of being a nation in its own right. A partition is also legal, and has a precedent (although it's only been done four times in U.S. history, the last of which was 1863 with the creation of West Virginia).
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