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County sheriffs’ job is to enforce law, not interpret it

It is not every day when dozens of Illinois county sheriffs, sworn to uphold the law, release statements that they are refusing to enforce a law duly enacted by the General Assembly of Illinois.

Last Wednesday, after Gov. JB Pritzker signed the bill into law, county sheriffs from across Illinois announced they won’t enforce the new law which in part requires owners of semiautomatic firearms to register their weapons with the state, arguing in prepared statements they believe the gun law is a violation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

County sheriffs, using nearly word-for-word language in their Wednesday press releases, included those from Carroll, DeKalb, Grundy, La Salle, Lee, McHenry, Ogle, Putnam, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago.

These sheriffs assert the assault weapons ban violates the Second Amendment and therefore it is as if the ban had never been passed. Although a number of sheriffs (and county state’s attorneys) similarly believed parts of the Safe-T Act which went into effect on Jan. 1 were unconstitutional, they brought that challenge to the courts and did not just refuse to enforce the law.

The difference is critical.

To be sure, judges do not have a monopoly on interpretation of the Constitution. Presidents (and governors) have an independent responsibility to construe the Constitution when deciding whether to sign a bill (as Gov. Pritzker did in this case) or grant a pardon. And, the legislature itself must consider the constitutionality of its own action, as the General Assembly did in enacting the ban.

But county sheriffs? It’s their job to enforce the law.

Indeed, the Illinois Seventh Circuit in 2015 upheld Highland Park’s ban on assault weapons, so the sheriffs in essence are flouting the binding legal precedent in this region. The Seventh Circuit could change its mind and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately might decide in favor of the sheriffs, but until that time, the Seventh Circuit’s decision is controlling.

The county sheriffs should no more second-guess that decision than U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that Miranda warnings are required or that strip searches violate the Fourth Amendment.

Indeed, Illinois provides that it is a felony when a “public officer” “intentionally or recklessly fails to perform any mandatory duty as required by law.”

At the end of the day, the sheriffs’ public posturing deals a blow to the rule of law.

We don’t want private citizens to interpret the Constitution for themselves and refuse to pay taxes (some have) or use drugs under some view that the Constitutional right of privacy protects behavior in the home.

Sheriffs should know better.

Harold J. Krent is a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. His expertise includes administrative law, appellate courts and Constitutional law.