Federal laws are not optional

Updated
Sheriff Tim Mueller
Sheriff Tim Mueller
Associated Press

From time to time, state and local officials may not like federal laws. Maybe it’s Democratic local officials objecting to Republican policies, perhaps it’s Republicans in municipalities who disapprove of Democratic policies, but since the Civil War, there hasn’t been any credible debate about whether such laws are optional.

They’re not.

The sheriff of an Oregon county sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden on Monday saying he and his deputies would not enforce – nor allow federal officials to enforce – any new federal firearms laws in his county, according to a copy of the letter posted on the Linn County Sheriff’s Office website.

“Politicians are attempting to exploit the deaths of innocent victims by advocating for laws that would prevent honest, law abiding Americans from possessing certain firearms and ammunition magazines,” Sheriff Tim Mueller wrote in the letter dated January 14, 2013. “Any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Linn County, Oregon.”

As Mueller sees it, it’s apparently not up to courts or judges to determine which laws are consistent with Americans’ constitutional rights; it’s instead up to a local sheriff. And if the local sheriff decides the law doesn’t meet the standards of his constitutional analysis, he just won’t enforce it.

To put it mildly, this is a problematic approach to a functioning democracy.

Similarly, there are new measures pending in the South Carolina and North Dakota state legislatures on ignoring new federal gun policies – before policymakers even know what they are – and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) wants state legislation that would make any “unconstitutional order” on gun policy taken by President Obama “illegal to enforce in Mississippi by state and local law enforcement.”

And who would decide which policies are “unconstitutional”?

Bryant didn’t say, exactly. If courts rule a law unconstitutional, then it’s a moot point – no one enforces laws that are struck down – but if the governor and legislature think they’re the arbiters of constitutional analysis, there’s a problem.

The rule of law still matters. So does separation of powers and judicial review. I have no idea what, if anything, Congress will pass to help prevent gun violence, but I do know state and local policymakers should realize that they’re not in a position to pick and choose which laws they’ll honor and which laws they’ll ignore.

Update: It looks like some policymakers in Missouri and Texas are thinking along similar lines.

Nullification

Federal laws are not optional

Updated