Whitaker, whom President Donald Trump announced as acting attorney general on Wednesday after he fired Jeff Sessions, made the comments during a failed 2014 run for the Republican Senate nomination in Iowa.
"The federal government's done a very good job about tying goodies to our compliance with federal programs, whether it's the Department of Education, whether it's Obamacare with its generous Medicare and Medicaid dollars and the like," he added. "But do I believe in nullification? I think our founding fathers believed in nullification. There's no doubt about that."
Whitaker added he didn't think states had the "political courage to nullify Obamacare."
The notion that states can do away with federal law has been at the heart of some of the country's biggest conflicts.
'Nullification as a serious, mainstream legal argument didn't survive the Civil War (or the constitutional amendments that followed)," said University of Texas law professor and CNN contributor Stephen Vladeck. "It's irreconcilable not only with the structure of the Constitution, but with its text, especially the text of the Supremacy Clause of Article VI—which not only makes federal law supreme, but expressly binds state courts to apply it. For someone who holds those views to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer, even temporarily, is more than a little terrifying."
Whitaker also said he believed that the courts were the inferior branch of the federal government, calling into question one of the most consequential rulings in Supreme Court history, Marbury vs. Madison, the 1803 case which established the power of federal courts to determine whether decisions or laws taken by by the President and Congress are constitutional.
"It is completely fraught with peril for 200 years of history and Marbury vs. Madison and the fact that the courts have become more powerful even though they're supposed to be the inferior branch," he added in the speech. "They have become more powerful than the other two branches because the other two branches lack political courage to stand up," he said.
"Whitaker's view of nullification is strictly political. That is, he would like it, politically, if States could disobey (nullify) federal law. As a legal matter, however, nullification finds no support in Constitutional law," said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst. "Indeed, Whitaker himself acknowledges this ... As acting Attorney General, I presume he will uphold federal legal principals."
The issue of nullification has never been upheld in federal court and is criticized by constitutional scholars. Most famously, in the 1830s, South Carolina and its US senator, John C. Calhoun, sparked a national crisis by declaring void two federal tariffs. Congress then authorized President Andrew Jackson to collect the tariffs with force.