Conservatives should be uneasy about what's happening to Michael Vick. Not because dog fighting is a long-standing, time honored feature of western civilization; I'm perfectly content that we find dog fighting morally repulsive and gratified to see how eager people are that our moral sense be enshrined in law. Nor am I defending animal cruelty; so long as we keep the distinction between animal and human firmly in mind, I'm all for cruelty being punished. But Vick is not being charged with cruelty to animals. He's not even being charged with dog fighting. He's being charged with dog fighting in interstate commerce, and there's the rub.
Here is the federal indictment of Vick and his friends. They're being charged with violating 18 US Code § 1952 (Interstate and foreign travel or transportation in aid of racketeering enterprises) and 7 USC § 2156 (Animal fighting venture prohibition). These are not federal crimes simply because dog fighting is bad. The federal government has no power to punish acts simply because they're bad. They are crimes only, and only to the extent, that they involve interstate or foreign commerce because the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. The Commonwealth of Virginia, on the other hand, has the power to punish acts simply because they're bad, and dog fighting is a crime in Virginia.
Once we've focussed on the actual crimes with which Vick is charged, the indictment and our response to it become troubling. As everyone knows by now, the indictment lists various ways in which Vick and company killed dogs that failed to show the proper fighting spirit. People are outraged by this cruelty. But it's not illegal to kill dogs you own and, in particular, it's not relevant to Vick's guilt or innocence of the crimes charged. The only reason those particulars are in the indictment is to stir up hatred and revulsion directed at Vick and, in that, the government has been successful. (If, in fact, the dogs suffered unduly from being electrocuted or shot or slammed to the ground, then Vick may well have violated Virginia anti-cruelty statutes but that's not at all clear. Shooting, in particular, is the traditional humane method for people who need to put down their own dog. It was sad when they shot Ol' Yeller, but the point wasn't that it was cruel.)
But the government using irrelevant detail to wind up hatred of a criminal defendant wouldn't be a particularly conservative issue if the government in question were the Commonwealth of Virginia. The problem for conservatives is federalism, and paying it more than lip-service. The federal ban on dog fighting is just one of the myriad examples of the Congress using its power to regulate interstate commerce as an excuse to subvert the states' general police power. In the Vick case, the dog fighting was primarily a Virginia enterprise and Virginia was perfectly able to take action. It would not have been stymied by the fact of Vick traveling from Georgia or some of the dogs coming from North Carolina. There's no need, here, for the federal government to act.
There is nothing we do in our modern lives that doesn't, in some way, involve interstate commerce and thus there is no where Congress can't go and nothing it can't do unless we find a way to leash it. Conservatives have to decide if we really care about federalism, a limited federal government and the original understanding of the Constitution. If so, then this case should bother us. If not -- if our expressed concerns about federalism are just a fig leaf to justify particular policy results we favor -- then we're as bad as Congress.