Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. | Wiki­media Commons

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.