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Does the law have anything clear to say about changing the name of a state in the United States? What I know is:

  • Maybe a couple of decades ago there was discussion in North Dakota of changing the name of the state to Dakota, which before 1889 was the name of the territory that in that year was split into two states.

  • I think it was in 1780 that the name of the state called Massachusetts Bay was changed to Massachusetts by means of the adoption of a new constitution of the state. This was before the Constitution of the U.S. was written, and before the Articles of Confederation went into effect. But when the Constitution was drafted in 1787, it still calls that state "Massachusetts Bay".

  • The federal statute admitting the state of Vermont to the Union in 1791 says it is to be called the State of Vermont, which is exactly what the petition for admission called it.

Under the present constitution,

  • Would a state statute suffice?
  • Would a state constitutional amendment suffice?
  • Would a federal statute suffice without a state statute or a state referendum?
  • Would a federal constitutional amendment be needed?
  • Might a federal statute be needed for some states (e.g. Vermont, because of what is noted above) but not for others, because of differences in the federal statutes that admitted the state, or because of the lack of any need for admission by Congress in the case of the original thirteen states?
  • Are there any consequences of the fact that the Constitution of Massachusetts and the Constitution of the United States use two different names for that state?

(In Canada a constitutional amendment changed the name of a province in 2001, but since it affected only that one province, that was the only one that needed to ratify it. Of course, it doesn't work that way in the U.S.)

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Under the present constitution . . . Are there any consequences of the fact that the Constitution of Massachusetts and the Constitution of the United States use two different names for that state?

No. Lots of the language in the United States Constitution is no longer in place or in common usage or is invalid due to subsequent amendments, and that language is still effective as originally intended. The U.S. Constitution has never been "amended and restated" and can't be understood properly without annotations to its raw text.

Might a federal statute be needed for some states (e.g. Vermont, because of what is noted above) but not for others, because of differences in the federal statutes that admitted the state, or because of the lack of any need for admission by Congress in the case of the original thirteen states?

Not really. Every state's name is embedded in myriad federal laws and regulations in addition to the statute that admitted the state to the United States, e.g. laws assigning names to post offices, laws allocating judgeships, laws purchasing property, laws appropriating funds, laws assigning states to various districts for purposes of executive branch departments and the judiciary, tax laws (e.g. the Obamacare tax credit), etc.

Would a state statute suffice? Would a state constitutional amendment suffice? Would a federal statute suffice without a state statute or a state referendum? Would a federal constitutional amendment be needed?

A federal constitutional amendment would not be needed. The Constitution vests Congress with the authority to admit states and to change their boundaries with the permission of the affected states. This would be within the power over states that could be inferred from those powers.

A state and the federal government could each pass a statute to call itself something different for various purposes. For example, the official name of the state of Rhode Island is "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" but various state and federal statutes authorize the use of the short form of the "State of Rhode Island" for most purposes.

As a practical matter a state constitutional amendment would probably be desirable on general principles to officially change the name of a state, whether or not it was strictly required, in part, because a state constitution usually sets forth an official name of a state in its body text.

It would be possible for a state to change its constitution and statutes and change its name in a move that the federal government did not accept, and if that happened, the federal government and its officials would probably continue to use the old name and the state government and its officials would probably use the new name. I think it is as a practical matter, unlikely that a standoff like this would persist, but I think that this is the most likely outcome.

A federal government move to change a state's name without its consent proactively, however, would probably be struck down as violating federalism concerns.

Of course, all of this is speculative, because there are really no precedents for disputes over the changing of a state's name. Context would influence the outcome of any such case.

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