The “constitutional sheriffs” movement — a fringe theory that holds that sheriffs have more law enforcement power in their home counties than any other government body or individual — has risen in influence over the past decade. Adherents believe that county sheriffs are the ultimate authority in determining the constitutionality of the laws they must enforce — including on matters of immigration, gun control, and health policy.
The movement has gained attention in recent years as self-proclaimed constitutional sheriffs have refused to enforce government-enacted public safety guidelines, including those issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and mass shootings. Supporters of the constitutional sheriff ideology also have shared racist and anti-immigrant beliefs on right-wing media, have been accused of mistreatment of immigrant detainees, and have been linked to anti-immigration groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group. In September 2022, a group of sheriffs associated with the movement spoke at a FAIR rally in Washington, D.C., where they applauded anti-immigration efforts and referred to unauthorized immigration as an “invasion” at the southern border.
Supporters of the movement have also been tied to the Oath Keepers militia, with several sheriffs appearing on leaked membership lists in 2022. The most prominent group promoting the ideology, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), was founded in 2011 by former Sheriff Richard Mack of Graham County, Ariz., who had previously served on the Oath Keepers board alongside founder Stewart Rhodes, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. In 2022, Mack stepped down as CEO of CSPOA and Sam Bushman, a far-right podcaster, assumed the role.
CSPOA, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as an “anti-government extremist group,” claims on its website that “the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President” — a theory that legal scholars say has no grounding in law.
American Oversight has submitted public records requests in more than a dozen states to sheriff offices, seeking communications with extremist groups targeting immigration, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and other issues. Other requests seek information about sheriff attendance at an anti-immigration rally hosted by FAIR in the summer of 2021, as well as any related travel and hotel records. In Florida, we are seeking the communications of several sheriffs’ offices with Moms for Liberty, a right-wing parents group that has called for constitutional sheriffs to help ban certain library books in the state.
We have also requested records related to several sheriffs’ attendance at the right-wing Claremont Institute’s week-long fellowship event in 2022, as well as any communications between supporters of the ideology and members of the Oath Keepers. In September 2021, we obtained records from Sheriff Vernon Warnke of Merced County, Calif., which included an email from two weeks before the Jan. 6 attack in which Warnke expressed surprise at a report that Rhodes had “armed men on standby outside of Washington, D.C., to supposedly prevent the 2020 presidential election from being stolen from President Donald Trump.” And in February 2022, we obtained documents containing curriculum details from the 2022 Claremont fellowship.
American Oversight will continue investigating the influence and reach of the constitutional sheriffs movement, as well as its impact on issues of public safety and civil rights. Read more about our work investigating the constitutional sheriff movement’s ties to election denial here.