Our evolving legal system

In his March 31 letter to The News and Sentinel, a writer from Waterford, Ohio, asserted local officials, such as sheriffs, “are free to independently interpret the acts of Congress.” He implied “common-law jurisdiction” allows these officials to sidestep “federal bureaucracy” and choose which laws they want to enforce. This is patently false because of the tenets of the “supremacy clause” of the U.S. Constitution. By his assertions, the writer is doing a grave disservice to the very system of Constitutional law that he claims to uphold.

What he described is nothing more than a warmed-over version of the “posse comitatus” (“power of the shire”) dogma that has dominated the thinking of extremist anti-government militia groups since the late 1990s. It went into hibernation during the Bush-43 era, but resurfaced again after the election of the first African-American president in 2008. According to the latest Homeland Security statistics, there were about 149 homegrown, anti-government groups in 2008. There are about 1,360 in existence today. These (according to the latest USDHS/DOJ reports) account for about 60 percent of domestic-terrorist incidents since 2001 – including many recent threats against officials who have supported gun-law reforms

“True believers” in the “posse comitatus” philosophy include the “Oath-keepers” as well as the “Sovereign Citizen” folks who are now pushing the bogus notion that local self-styled “patriots” have some “God-given right” to do almost anything they like in our society without any federal interference.

The United States in the 21st century certainly owes a debt to the principles of medieval English Common Law that partly inspired the founders to formulate their 1787 plan of government, but (as any 10th-grade civics student knows) the “Law of the Land” is a living, breathing document that is adaptable to the numerous changes in society or technology that have occurred during the 226 years since it was written.

The Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle used by the Sandy Hook killer is far removed from the “Brown Bess” musket of the 1780s. By the same token, our present-day legal system has “evolved” beyond the 10th century Anglo-Saxon laws of Alfred the Great (actually, King Alfred gained the most fame by uniting English provinces against Viking invaders) or the later feudalistic Norman system that entrusted enormous perks to local barons and power-hungry types like the archetypal “Sheriff of Nottingham” of the “Robin Hood” stories.

The writer of the “Constitution” letter should be advised this is not 1066, 1787 or 1860. It is 2013!

Fred O’Neill