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Influence of Group Promoting Constitutional Supremacy of Local Sheriffs Reaches Far

A new report published by the Associated Press highlights the growing influence in rural communities across the United States of a controversial organization that promotes the notion that the nation’s elected sheriffs have broad, sweeping constitutional power.

The report is the product of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, which investigated the philosophy and tactics of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).

Founded in 2011 by Richard Mark, a former sheriff in Arizona, the CSPOA advances the idea that as elected law enforcement officers who swear an oath to the constitution, sheriffs are the ultimate arbiters of the U.S. Constitution.

One emphasis for CSPOA is gun ownership rights. So, for example, if a U.S. state or the federal government passes a gun control law or regulation that a county sheriff believes violates the Second Amendment of the Constitution, the sheriff is obligated to not enforce that law or regulation. In this interpretation, the opinion of a county sheriff supersedes that of the U.S. Congress, federal agencies, federal courts—presumably including the U.S. Supreme Court, state legislatures, state agencies, and state courts.

As the AP and various other outlets have reported, legal and constitutional scholars deny that sheriffs have this power. They say, in fact, that sheriffs are constitutionally obligated to enforce all local, state, and federal laws and regulations unless a state or federal court with appropriate authority issues a ruling invalidating the law or regulation—as the Supreme Court did in a case involving Marks and which Marks cites as justification for CSPOA’s position.

The same test applies for issues other than firearms, and the CSPOA takes positions on a wide array of issues from immigration to land management. And the organization is an advocate of the widely debunked notion that the 2020 election included widespread fraud, saying in a press release that sheriffs have a “duty to do everything in our power to correct this misjustice.”

The AP report explained how these ideas are spreading in two ways.

First, CSPOA developed and delivered what it describes as education sessions for local law enforcement and communities.

”The group has held formal trainings on its ’constitutional’ curriculum for law enforcement officers in at least 13… states,” the AP reported. “In six states, the training was approved for officers’ continuing education credits. The group also has supporters who sit on three state boards in charge of law enforcement training standards.”

Opponents, the report said, describe the sessions more as opinion and political rallies than law enforcement training. Texas initially approved the training as law enforcement continuing education credits before reversing that decision.

The second way the CSPOA is spreading is by spearheading a movement that champions county legislative bodies, typically county boards of supervisors, to designate their county as a constitutional county. The version of the resolution the CSPOA puts forward specifically empowers sheriffs to refuse to enforce state and federal laws that the sheriffs interpret as being unconstitutional.

The AP reported that two Nevada counties, Lander and Elko, have adopted the CSPOA resolution and have become “CSPOA constitutional counties,” meaning in addition to adopting a suitable resolution they have paid a fee directly to CSPOA to be lifetime members of the group.

However, the report noted that often sheriffs or other authorities push for constitutional county resolutions that ultimately fail or that get watered down to the point that they are simple affirmations that the Bill of Rights applies to the county’s residents.

A 2021 study by The Marshall Project said that Mack had estimated the CSPOA had trained at least 800 sheriffs. In a survey that reached out to all 3,000-plus U.S. sheriffs, the group received 500 responses. Very few reported being members of CSPOA, but nearly half agreed that “the sheriff’s authority supersedes the federal or state government in my county.” Another 30 percent were neutral on the question, and less than a quarter disagreed. Furthermore, more than 70 percent said they would intercede “on behalf of county residents when I believe a state or federal law is unjust.” Only 11 percent said they’d be unwilling to intercede in such a circumstance.

When presented with the results, Mack said, “I was surprised by some of that, and pleased. The people of the country are getting behind us.”

The researchers behind the survey describe it as Mack having “successfully radicalized a generation of sheriffs to believe that the office has seemingly unlimited power and autonomy.”