Experts discuss growth of Constitutional Sheriff movement during Casten forum

‘There’s a celebration of vigilantism in our culture,’ Casten says

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, addresses political topics  during the LaGrange town hall held Saturday Jan 21, 2023.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, hosted a virtual panel over the weekend at which he and four others discussed “rising extremism” and right-wing sheriffs, which he said represents an “incredibly dangerous movement.”

The panel featured Casten, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Professor Jason DeSanto, lawyer and journalist Jessica Pishko, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Public Safety Project Manager Puneet Cheema and University of Illinois-Chicago School of Law Professor Steven Schwinn. They all spoke about the Constitutional Sheriffs Movement and their views on the dangers of the group.

DeSanto moderated the event and provided a bit of history on the Constitutional Sheriffs Movement and its rising traction in Illinois.

The movement began in 2011 and gained traction in Illinois after the Protect Illinois Communities Act was signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in January, DeSanto said. The act was a response to the July 4, 2022, shooting in Highland Park and banned the sale and distribution of assault weapons in Illinois. After the signing of the act, sheriffs representing 90 counties in Illinois said they would not enforce it, viewing it as a violation of the Second Amendment.

“[This] movement, often framed in terms of liberty, may actually be a growing threat to liberty, to our Constitutional system and to our Constitutional rights,” DeSanto said at the start of the event.

Casten said DuPage County Sheriff James Mendrick is one of the 90 sheriffs who said they would not enforce the act, which led Casten to discuss the topic with him in what Casten called a “heated” conversation.

Casten in January called for Mendrick to retract a statement about the state’s new gun ban or resign. In the statement, Mendrick said he believed the state’s new ban on high-powered guns and high-capacity magazines was unconstitutional.

In early February, Mendrick said he was not threatened with censure during a meeting with DuPage County Board Chair Deb Conroy and State’s Attorney Robert Berlin.

Discussing the movement in Washington, D.C., with an unnamed Republican representative from what Casten called “a very rural state,” his colleague said the Constitutional Sheriffs Movement is the most dangerous thing happening in America, Casten said.

Casten warned of the ideology of the movement that includes the belief that when sheriffs are in their own county, their powers supersede those of any law enforcement officer, employee or other elected official of any level of government all the way up to the president.

Richard Mack, the founder of the movement, Casten said, also is a member of the Oath Keepers, a group whose members were involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Oath Keepers asks members to willingly violate any law they personally believe violates the Constitution.

“There is a deep rot that this is tied to a lot of our system,” Casten said. “This is a real problem. … I am not for a moment suggesting the police are racist or tied to slavery. What I am suggesting, though, is that there has always been a history – a direct link – between white supremacy and the desire to expand the powers of local law enforcement at the expense of the federal government … and that tension is now being manifested in local law enforcement agencies.”

The panel was livestreamed on Casten’s Facebook page and can be viewed there. It has received a variety of comments from users, some supporting and thanking Casten for convening the panel and others criticizing him for “subverting” the Constitution, exclaiming their support instead for the Constitutional Sheriffs Movement.

Casten did not participate much in the conversation, allowing the panelists to share their experiences and knowledge of the movement and its dangers. He said he believes they are the experts, and after hearing the panelists speak, he said he wanted to leave the audience with two thoughts.

“I think it is factually accurate to refer to this as a right-wing movement,” Casten said. “I’m also nervous when we say that because whoever you voted for in the last election should not color your concern here, and wherever you sit on this, I would ask you to recognize there’s a celebration of vigilantism in our culture that is not from the left or the right … it’s something in the American zeitgeist.”