Commentary: Who will guard the guardians?

Sep 17, 2012

Shortly before Michigan’s statewide primary six weeks ago, I began to hear from people who had concerns about the sheriff in Eaton County, which is suburban and rural and just west of Lansing.

They told me the sheriff Mike Raines was putting together some kind of armed militia group and had scary ideas about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

Frankly, I didn’t pay a lot of attention. Journalists are always hearing sensational charges just days before an election. Eaton County has about a hundred thousand people, I’ve often been there and didn’t notice any nutty behavior.

However, there was a disturbing story in the Lansing State Journal over the weekend which suggests that there may be something to worry about. Sheriff Raines is a member of something called the Constitutional Sheriffs’ and Peace Officers Association, founded a few years ago by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack.

Mack has a lot of what you might call far-out ideas. For one thing, he evidently believes that county sheriffs are the main source of authority in this country. He thinks sheriffs don’t have to obey the President of the United States if they don’t want to.

Basically, members of the Constitutional Sheriffs say they are here to defend us all against a sinister, out-of-control federal government intent on taking away our guns and pasteurizing our milk. Yes, they seem to have some odd obsession with the right to drink raw milk, which is a bit hard to understand.

Coincidentally, the Constitutional Sheriffs are holding their annual convention today in Las Vegas. Sheriff Raines told the newspaper he isn’t going, though Michigan’s other member of the association, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, apparently is. 

Leaf told the newspaper he wants to learn more about what a sheriff’s duty and authority is. You might have thought he would have done that before running for the job.
 Anyway, back in Eaton County, Sheriff Raines apparently thinks our Second Amendment rights are threatened, even though the Supreme Court has strongly affirmed them. Raines thinks someone is trying to pass laws to take away our guns, which betrays an appalling ignorance of how government works. He’s not alone in that, by any means.

But what worries me is that Sheriff Raines has also founded a citizens group called The Guardians of the Constitution, most of whom have licenses to carry concealed pistols. He claims they are a talent pool for volunteer deputy groups. They sound a bit more like his private militia. Their “mission statement” says, “We believe Sheriff Raines is an innovative and progressive sheriff  … a free society shall not be shackled by the bonds of tyranny.”

Well, we already have a set of Guardians of the Constitution. They are called federal judges, and the ultimate guardians are the nine members of the United States Supreme Court.
 Sheriffs do have an important role in democracy; they enforce the laws in their particular county. They aren’t supposed to decide what laws they like or put together armed bands to interpret the Constitution. That would be a prescription for anarchy. Sheriff Raines is right about one thing; we need to be eternally vigilant.

Which means his constituents might want to ask questions about what in the world their sheriff is doing.                        

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.