Amid the chaos of the national COVID-19 pandemic, protests in three states, and the dawning realization that all our final projects for school are due in the next few weeks, it would be easy to miss one police announcement sent out from a few Michigan counties.
To overlook that press release, however, would be to miss the following chilling statement: “Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, and to ensure that your God-given rights are not violated. We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties.”
The sheriffs are right. The division of powers among federal, state, and local authorities is essential to curtailing the abuse of executive power — evident in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 55 current COVID-19 executive orders.
The sheriffs of Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee, and Mason Counties are taking a controversial stand by signing this press release. To their credit, they do try to state the matter delicately: “[W]e question some restrictions that [Gov. Gretchen Whitmer] has imposed as overstepping her executive authority.” Because of this overreach, the sheriffs have stated that they will not unquestioningly enforce her restrictions. Instead, they plan to judge every “apparent violation” on a case-by-case basis, upholding individual rights rather than allowing tyranny.
One such restriction declared that local entrepreneurs, like landscapers or owners of plant nurseries, were non-essential. As such, these stores were forced to close their businesses by government mandate. The most recent executive order allowed them to reopen, “subject to the enhanced social-distancing rules described in section 11(h) of this order.” These restrictions apply until May 15 at the earliest. In the same vein, local Walmarts were allowed to sell soil and seeds separately, but seedlings were off the table. To put it simply, until the restrictions were relaxed this week, any Michigander hoping to use their quarantine to plant a garden was sorely disappointed. Similarly, landscapers can hope at best for an unemployment check.
Another of the inexplicable restrictions is Whitmer’s order for some stores to keep their home improvement sections roped off to customers. This order does not come because she has deemed paint non-essential. She still permits stores to handle online transactions and curbside pickups for materials within these sections, but she has decreed that they will not be accessible in-store.
No one can explain the seemingly-arbitrary classifications between what the governor considers essential and non-essential. The sheriffs’ press release summarizes the matter neatly by saying, “[Whitmer] has created a vague framework of emergency laws that only confuse Michigan citizens.” Her standards are unclear, and her justification for such specific restrictions is absent.
While it’s true that Whitmer has a noble end in mind by trying to preserve health and safety, her sweeping executive orders have made Michigan natives fear for their rights. Arbitrarily closing portions of the home and garden sections of rural Walmarts does not, and cannot, control the spread of a viral disease in Detroit. She will not ensure the safety of Michiganders through executive overreach, at least not without serious long-term consequences for individual rights.
This is where the sheriffs step in. They do not launch into pugnacious attacks against the governor herself. Instead, they remind Michiganders, “Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the US Constitution, and to ensure that your God given rights are not violated.” By reaffirming the oaths these officers have taken, the press release reminds citizens that their rights cannot be eradicated by one individual. Despite the overreach in Whitmer’s executive orders, she is not the only part of Michigan’s government and will not be left unaccountable.
The separation of powers has already shown its value in restricting overreach. Michigan’s legislature denied Whitmer’s plan to keep the state under a shelter-in-place order until June, shortening the timeframe to the end of April. Similarly, this press release shows that the division of powers across the local, state, and federal levels helps defend citizens’ rights.
The sheriffs’ belief that “we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties” is rightfully sobering. Their press release highlights the danger to our rights, which necessarily stem from an energetic executive willing to use extra-legal authority. This danger is particularly prevalent in times of crisis, like the one we face today. At this moment, tensions are high, and deliberation is cast aside in favor of fear. Strong responses to every perceived threat seem not only right, but necessary. As a result, Whitmer has largely been permitted to do as she sees fit. If anyone questions her actions, she can remind them of the death toll in Detroit and argue that even more stringent measures may be necessary to keep more innocent people from dying.
Executive power wielded in this fashion cannot achieve the proposed goal of safety, but it can thoroughly undermine citizens’ rights. Present threats to our rights promise future returns of destruction. Removing checks against tyranny now will only allow greater and greater affronts to liberty to pass unchallenged. If we allow Whitmer to eradicate our rights in hopes of preserving our safety, we are likely to lose both.
As such, the sheriffs’ stand against Whitmer’s overzealous orders is not only admirable, but also necessary to both the defense of our rights and the limitation of governmental power to its proper sphere. By specifically reminding Michiganders of their personal oaths to uphold the US and Michigan Constitutions, they vow to defend our rights against executive overreach by taking a stand at the local level. Just as surely as Whitmer’s actions show the dangers of an energetic executive, the sheriffs’ response shows a commitment to freedom and refusal to permit tyranny, even in frightening times.
Whitmer’s executive orders have gone beyond reasonable defense of the public health. By contrast, the sheriffs’ defense of Michiganders’ rights shows the importance of the division of powers, particularly during times of crisis, as a check on government overreach. Infringing upon our rights, locking us in our homes, and restricting the sale of petunias and paint will not end this virus — only threaten our freedom.
Ceanna Hayes is a George Washington Fellow. She is a sophomore studying politics.