‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (Oath taken by all U.S. Presidents upon entering office.)
— The U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I am duly qualified, according to the Constitution of this State, to exercise the duties of the office to which I have been elected, (or appointed), and that I will, to the best of my ability, discharge the duties thereof, and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of this State and of the United States. So help me God.” (Oath taken by all members of the South Carolina General Assembly and all officers of the State ...)
— The Constitution of the State of South Carolina, Article III, Section 26
Charleston County Sheriff All Cannon stirred up a pot of self-righteous indignation when he said, at an April Fool’s Day talk to the Georgetown GOP Patriots Club, that he would not enforce federal laws or presidential orders he considered unconstitutional. Judging from letters to the editor published in this newspaper and others, that pot is still bubbling. How dare Cannon, his critics imply, take it upon himself to decide what is constitutional and what is not?
It turns out, though, that the good sheriff has a lot of good law and precedent on his side. Let me explain.
The U.S. Constitution does indeed grant the president enormous power. It does not, however, grant him unlimited power. Specifically, it does not permit him to restrict by executive order or regulation that which Congress has refused to enact through legislation, or to choose the laws he will “faithfully enforce” and those he will ignore (and yes, I see the irony here, since the latter is what Al Cannon is catching heat for).
The South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, which I assume Cannon is a member of, on its website makes an interesting point. “... as constitutional officers of the state of South Carolina and locally elected, our authority to enforce any law extends only to the laws and statutes of South Carolina and the ordinances of our respective counties. We do not possess the authority to enforce any federal law or presidential order.”
In addition to the oath Cannon took as an officer of the State of South Carolina “to preserve, support and defend” the Constitution of the United States, Cannon, as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, took that oath a second time. And here is something that some of his detractors may not be aware of. While it is true that the oath for enlisted men includes a part that says “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me,” the oath taken by officers in the military does not. This is not an oversight, but a recognition that officers, presumably better equipped to determine what is a lawful, constitutional order and what is not (I’ll pass on the “better equipped” bit), have a duty to oppose orders that their conscience and experience tells them are unlawful and unconstitutional.
President Obama has stretched the envelope of presidential authority to a greater extent than any in recent history. Richard Nixon, wherever his spirit may now reside, no doubt nods in approval. Unable to get the “Dream Act” through Congress, President Obama in essence put it in effect through executive order. Failing to get senatorial advice and consent to some of his nominees for appointment to important offices in his administration, he clearly abused his authority to make recess appointments when in fact the Senate was not in formal recess. Seeing his attempt to have new restrictions placed on gun ownership blocked in Congress, he vowed to enforce them by regulation and executive order.
His assault on the Second Amendment to the Constitution is what set off the Cannon brouhaha. That amendment is short and to the point:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Now I know the argument that says the Constitution is a “living document,” that times change, and the Constitution should change to reflect the real world we live in. The Framers also knew this, and they established procedures to amend the great document we, as a free people, have been endowed with. The procedures to amend were deliberately onerous, but over the life of the Republic, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. If the administration wants to do away with or restrict the people’s right “to keep and bear Arms” guaranteed in the Second Amendment, then let it propose, enact and ratify a 28th Amendment to do just that.
To those who say and fervently believe that President Obama, having been twice elected to the highest office in the land, should have his orders and decrees enforced and obeyed, regardless of what an old piece of parchment called the Constitution of the United States of America says, I say history teaches that the greatest tyrants often have sprung from those initially elected to office.
Al Cannon’s supposed sin against higher authority was an act of courage, not arrogance. Good for him.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. A retired naval officer, he served in both the enlisted and commissioned ranks.