Cornell Law School Logo - white on transparent background

Volume 108, Issue 5


Vigilante Federalism

Jon D. Michaels & David L. Noll

Professor of Law, UCLA School of law & Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development and Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School.

14 Sep 2023

In battles over abortion, religion, sexuality, gender, and race, state legislatures are mass producing a new weapon. From Texas’s S.B. 8 to book bans and a flurry of bills empowering parents to sue schools that acknowledge LGBTQ+ identities or implement anti-racist curricula, state legislatures are enacting laws that call on private parties—and sometimes only private parties—to enforce their commands. These laws were initially viewed as a means of implementing unlawful policies while escaping judicial review. But manipulating judicial review is only the tip of the iceberg. The proliferation of what we term “private subordination regimes” bolsters the right-wing anti-democratic project by legalizing vigilantism and encouraging (White, Christian) partisans to police the most intimate aspects of other people’s lives and force Black Americans, women, and LGBTQ+ persons out of public spaces.

The spread of private subordination regimes through states such as Texas, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, and Tennessee marks an alarming shift in American federalism. Enacted against the backdrop of a federal legislative process structured to thwart democratic preferences, the Supreme Court’s erasure of longstanding constitutional rights, and the Court’s intense skepticism toward national regulatory power, private subordination laws do not validate Justice Brandeis’ vision of policy learning through “laboratories of democracy.” Instead, these laws (often verbatim copies from state-to-state) promote a larger project of entrenching MAGA policies, insulating those policies from democratic control, and cementing right-wing politicians’ hold on power notwithstanding their numerically shrinking base. Rather than enriching our democracy, this strategy further distorts our national politics and cries out for tit-for-tat reprisals, as blue states repurpose private subordination regimes to advance progressive priorities.

This Article makes the case for viewing private subordination via legalized vigilantism as a noteworthy development in anti-democratic politics, explains the functions that private subordination regimes perform, and posits that they are emblematic of a new “vigilante federalism.” In this permutation of American federalism, state power is first devolved then privatized by turning it over to private partisans newly authorized to surveil members of their communities and newly empowered (and urged) to enforce the MAGA agenda. Understanding vigilante federalism as both a symptom and an accelerant of today’s corrosive political dynamics, the Article examines how vigilante federalism is reframing power in the United States and explores what can be done to arrest it.

To read this Article, please click here: Vigilante Federalism.