LINCOLN — A rural Nebraska county board member considered, but ultimately rejected, introducing a resolution “endorsing” a right-wing group with ties to the Oath Keepers, a militia group that has seen nearly 20 of its members charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Clay County Board member L. Wayne Johnson said that after reviewing a proposed resolution from the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, he decided that endorsing the association was unnecessary for the county to express its support for laws that adhere to the U.S. Constitution.
Instead, Johnson said he’ll introduce a resolution at the County Board’s Aug. 24 meeting that includes many of the beliefs of the Constitutional Sheriffs group, which maintains that all gun control and background check laws are unconstitutional and that elected sheriffs have the ultimate power to reject enforcement of state and federal laws they consider contrary to the U.S. Constitution.
“I don’t see any reason for Clay County, Nebraska, to endorse this group, if all we want to say is that we want to be a constitutional county,” Johnson said Tuesday.
“We’re just making a statement to stay the hell out of Clay County with all of your federal policies, and we’d be pretty darned happy,” he said. “We don’t want any more federal overreach here.”
The proposed resolution is part of a trend of conservative-leaning, nonbinding resolutions considered recently by counties in Nebraska. Ninety-one of the state’s 93 counties have passed resolutions declaring themselves as Second Amendment “sanctuaries” from federal gun laws. Roughly a dozen counties have adopted resolutions opposing President Joe Biden’s “30-by-30” conservation goal. And several others have passed resolutions condemning a National Heritage Area proposed in south-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas.
Clay County, a farming area east of Hastings that voted nearly 5-to-1 for former President Donald Trump last year, has passed all three of those resolutions, and played host to one of the anti-30-by-30 rallies hosted by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Such resolutions, while nonbinding, serve as an “announcement of values” from a particular county, and appear to be a symptom of today’s “hyper-partisan political landscape,” said Eric Berger, a constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law.
While the U.S. Supreme Court determines which laws are constitutional, a sheriff can choose which laws to prioritize for enforcement, for instance prioritizing busts of drug kingpins but not street-level dealers, Berger said.
But, he added, while a sheriff might decide to not enforce some gun laws, they could not prevent federal authorities from enforcing federal laws in their county.
The Constitutional Sheriffs group was founded in 2009 by Richard Mack, a former sheriff from rural Arizona. It has been pushing nationwide for counties to declare themselves “constitutional counties” or pass resolutions joining or endorsing its organization.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, has described the Constitutional Sheriffs organization as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.” At one time, the organization said it had 400 sheriffs and police chiefs as members, but it does not publish a membership list, and did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
In recent months, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association has held meetings in northeast Iowa and Rapid City, South Dakota. Mack and others in the group participated in rallies held by Arise USA at Wahoo and North Platte in June.
Johnson said he talked recently with Arise USA officials during their “Resurrection Tour” stop at the Clay County Fair in Clay Center. That led to a conversation with a county commissioner from Elko County, Nevada, and a look at a resolution passed there in June to “join” the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
It declared that 10 “abuses” would not be tolerated in Elko County, including infringement on gun or religious rights, and searches, arrests and confiscation of private property that were not “constitutionally compliant.”
“You know what I train sheriffs to do? Kick ’em the hell out of your county,” said Mack, referring to the federal government and the IRS, according to an article in the Elko Daily Free Press.
Mack’s group asserts that “the law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county,” according to its website.
It states that the southern border must be secured (the organization suggests deploying armed drones that are being brought back from the Middle East), that universal background checks for guns are ineffective and that “states should have a plan for assuming control of all” federal land that was “not obtained by Constitutional means.” The group has also opposed mandates on mask wearing to prevent COVID-19.
Mack gained national notoriety when he and a group of sheriffs won a partial Supreme Court ruling against the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. He successfully argued that local law enforcement should not be required to do all the background checks required by the federal law.
Mack is also affiliated with the Oath Keepers. Several members of that militia group donned combat gear and participated in the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, with at least 19 members facing federal charges.
Two days later, a tweet from the vice president of the Constitutional Sheriffs asked for evidence that “antifa” and “instigators other than Trump supporters” were responsible for breaking into the Capitol. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has said there’s no evidence that members of far-left groups or causes like antifa were involved.
Johnson, the Clay County Board member, said that once he researched the Constitutional Sheriffs group, he decided that a resolution didn’t need to “endorse” that group. Instead, he said he’s worked on three drafts of a proposed resolution, based on what was passed in Nevada’s Elko County, that states local support for the Bill of Rights.
When asked what federal overreach he was trying to stop, Johnson, a Vietnam veteran and Republican, said it was “all their overreach, with all their mandates, and all their executive orders.”
“If one can’t see the writing on the wall, then someone must be blind,” he said.