Federalism—the division of the powers of self-government between the states and the federal government—is one of the central principles of the Constitution and arguably the most original American contribution to the world’s fund of political experience. Essential to its functioning are the presence and actions of the states. While the relationship between state and federal government is defined in a number of different places in the Constitution, Article IV is the part that seeks to define how the states relate to one another. The states had often been at cross purposes under the Articles of Confederation (despite their attempt to foster “amity” among them), and the Framers consciously sought to create a more harmonious framework for interstate relations.
Perhaps the best known provision of Article IV is that which requires that each state give “full faith and credit” (a phrase carried over from the Articles of Confederation) to the “acts, records, and judicial proceedings” of the other states. This prevents states from passing judgment on each other’s actions and limits the disruptive potential of having fifty separate jurisdictions. A driver licensed in one state, for example, can drive in all the others. The operation of this clause has not been without controversy, however. This has particularly been true with regard to questions involving marriage and divorce, areas of life primarily regulated by state law. The presence of different state laws defining grounds for divorce and periods of residency required for filing, for example, was a topic of controversy for much of the twentieth century until the coming of “no fault” divorce laws in many states in the later part of the century. Today a more controversial topic is whether the recognition by some states of same-sex marriages makes such unions valid in all the states under Article IV. Many states have legislated to the contrary, and many legal scholars hold that such an exercise of the states’ right to enact public policy provisions is not subject to challenge under the “full faith and credit” clause.
Article IV also provides that the citizens of one state are entitled to the “privileges and immunities” of citizens in other states. This has been broadly interpreted to insure the right of Americans to travel to or through all states and to settle in any one of them, one of the several ways Article IV helps to underpin the physical mobility that is so much a part of American society. Generally, a state may not discriminate against citizens of other states in matters of fundamental rights. This does not mean, however, that states cannot make any distinctions. States may, for example, charge its citizens lower tuition at its public colleges and universities or charge out-of-state hunters more for a license. Such matters do not involve fundamental rights.
Article IV also exerts an important influence on law enforcement in the United States through its requirement that those who commit crimes in one state and flee to another be returned for prosecution. This is a frequent occurrence usually accomplished by a process popularly known as extradition. Occasionally a governor may delay or even refuse to act on such a request, expressing doubts about whether the fugitive will be accorded fair treatment. The text of the amendment, however, leaves no space for such actions.
Finally, it should be mentioned that Article IV authorizes the admission of new states and stipulates that new states may not be carved out of existing states without the latter’s consent. While there have been no states admitted since Alaska and Hawaii in the late 1950s, the prospect is always there. Probably the most active statehood movement at present is found in the District of Columbia.
Broad and various in its application, Article IV provides the constitutional basis for the generally harmonious relations that exist among the American states. One measure of its success, perhaps, is that this is an area of our public life that Americans take for granted.
William C. Lowe, PhD
Dean and Professor of History
The University of Arizona Global Campus
published September 2010