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The Pandemic’s Blow to Federalism

American Constitution Society presenter decries the destabilizing behaviors and errors during the Covid-19 crisis.


Constitutional scholar Aziz Huq joined the American Constitution Society September 30 for a virtual discussion about how the pandemic has exposed both risks and disappointments of federalism, among other concerns for the well-being of democracy.

The Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law and the Mark Claster Mamolen Teaching Scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, Huq studies the interaction of constitutional design with individual liberties and rights, and he recently co-authored a book on democratic backsliding titled, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy.

In his talk, Huq described the federal response as calamitous, citing the decisions to disband the pandemic response unit within the National Security Council, to knowingly downplay the seriousness of Covid-19, to not supply sufficient numbers of tests, and to inadequately provide PPE and medical equipment as contributing factors to the more than 200,000 deaths thus far.

While the federal response has been, “an array of errors,” in Huq’s opinion, there have been some state leaders who have proved to be empathetic and knowledgeable, including Governors Mario Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California.

Huq also discussed the disappointment of the interstate compacts that were coordinated early on in the pandemic. These compacts did not prove to be an effective response in the absence of effective national leadership, but Huq says that it is an interesting concept that could be explored in the future, for example, in combatting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, Huq addressed the current state of our national government in light of the first presidential debate. He warned of a violent transition of power, caused by Trump’s attempt to corrupt the system at a state and federal level as a means of defeating the will of the people. He sees this as a threat to public order that parallels that of other countries where political leaders have employed paramilitary groups. Huq lived in Afghanistan for a year after law school and said that it is “hard to realize how terrifying and awful civil violence is unless you see it close up. We saw a step toward that last night.”

Covid-19, the current political climate, and the violence we’re seeing have caused a great deal of emotion that Huq says we can all find ways to manage without being overwhelmed. He concluded by encouraging law students to recognize that the skills we have are useful tools in the protection and vindication of democracy.