States abdicate many of their federal responsibilities to local governments. They do not monitor local compliance with those laws; they disclaim responsibility for the actions of their local governments; and they deny state officials the legal capacity to bring local governments into compliance. When sued for noncompliance with these federal laws, states attempt to evade responsibility by arguing that local governments — and not the state — are responsible. These arguments create serious and unexplored barriers to enforcing federal law. They present thorny issues of federalism and liability, and courts struggle with them. Because neither courts resolving these conflicts nor advocates litigating them are aware that abdication occurs regularly across a number of policy areas, courts have failed to develop a consistent methodology for addressing it. This Article argues that courts should reject these state arguments in most cases and outlines the contours of a “nonabdication doctrine” that would be less solicitous and accommodating of existing state laws and more attentive to the language of federal laws.
This Article is the first to uncover these state arguments and mark them as a pattern across a surprisingly diverse set of states and federal policies: indigent defense, election law, public assistance, conditions of incarceration, and others. It uses state filings — including archived documents — as well as interviews with numerous advocates and state officials, to explore the concept of state abdication. It posits that abdication is a consequence of superimposing federal responsibilities onto the diverse legal and political relationships between states and their local governments. It suggests that abdication provides a new lens through which to reassess previous thinking on localism, federalism, and decentralization. Because abdication permits states to shelter noncompliance with federal law at the local level and mutes productive local dissent, it reveals a failure of decentralizing federal policy that federalism scholars currently overlook.