Sheriffs’ Tomfoolery

The New Yorker had an interesting article last week on the so-called “constitutional sheriffs” movement. The article focused on the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which claims about five thousand members, including Nick Finch, the sheriff of Liberty County, Florida:

C.S.P.O.A. members believe that the sheriff has the final say on a law’s constitutionality in his county. Every law-enforcement officer has some leeway in choosing which laws to enforce, which is why it’s rare to get a ticket for jaywalking, for example. But, under this philosophy, the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which dictates that federal law takes precedence over state law, is irrelevant. So is the Supreme Court. “They get up every morning and put their clothes on the same way you and I do,” Finch told me. “Why do those nine people get to decide what the rest of the country’s going to be like?” To the most dogmatic, there’s only one way to interpret the country’s founding documents: pro-gun, anti-immigrant, anti-regulation, anti-Washington.

Now, these guys claim to be very interested in legal history, the common law, and so forth. Good for them. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the have the history backwards. In early times, much of the real power was decentralized. The feudal lords had their own courts and were not particularly accountable to the king. But the sheriff was the direct representative of the king in the county, and he checked the power of the lords. He was also accountable to the king every year at the exchequer.

So it’s just very odd that anyone with a purported interest in history would take the sheriff as the example for local control and defiance of centralized government.

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