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As the question of D.C. statehood commands national attention, the legal discourse remains stilted. The constitutional question we should be debating is not whether statehood is permitted but whether it is required.

Commentators have been focusing on the wrong constitutional provisions. The Founding document and the Twenty-Third Amendment do not resolve D.C.’s status. The Reconstruction Amendments — and the principle of federated, equal citizenship they articulate — do. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause, as glossed by subsequent amendments, not only establishes birthright national citizenship and decouples it from race and caste but also makes state citizenship a constitutive component of equal national citizenship. Because the Founding architecture of federalism has remained in place as political rights have become integral to U.S. citizenship, national citizenship must be realized in part through the states. All Americans living in the United States, including in the District of Columbia, are constitutionally entitled to claim state citizenship where they reside.

Beyond realizing a constitutional obligation, Congress’s admission of D.C. to the Union would serve American federalism. Many of federal-ism’s normative values — from creating spheres of minority rule, to satisfying local preferences, to providing laboratories of experimentation — are not well-realized in practice. But the very features of D.C. that have long impeded its recognition as a self-governing political community introduce new possibilities for achieving these values. As a plurality Black state, D.C. would provide a novel forum for federalism to empower people of color. And as the nation’s first city-state, D.C. would facilitate subsidiarity by merging federalism and localism.


Constitutional Law | Law


Center for Constitutional Governance