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Explainer: The Influence of County Supremacy Doctrine in the Oregon Standoff

BURNS, Ore.—Participants in the armed standoff here and the politicians that support them subscribe to the little-known ideology of “county supremacy,” the false notion that county sheriffs have ultimate authority over that of the federal government and can choose whether or not to enforce federal law. Legal scholars roundly dismiss these ideas as completely unfounded, yet they’ve taken hold in the right-wing militia movement that led to the armed occupation in Burns.

Harney County Sheriff David Ward has attempted to defuse the situation while acknowledging that Ammon and Ryan Bundy aim to overthrow the federal government. Prior to the standoff, county supremacy advocates asked Sheriff Ward to stop the federal government from incarcerating Dwight and Steven Hammond for their arson conviction. Ward declined, and the militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the Hammonds reported to prison.

At the end of the day, taking over a federal building is a federal crime, and the U.S. Department of Justice will ultimately have to decide what charges to bring against the militants.

For more information on the ties between the militia movement, white supremacist groups, and state legislators advocating for the disposal of American public lands to states or private parties, read CWP’s report, Going to Extremes: The anti-government extremism behind the growing movement to seize America’s public lands.

Fact Sheet: The ideological roots of the land seizure movement

POSSE COMITATUS

A loosely organized movement that gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Its members believe that the federal government has no law enforcement authority and that local citizens are empowered to form “posses” to use force and violence to defend the Constitution. The movement still has traction today, as evidenced by its members being involved in shootings of law enforcement officers in 2012 and its invocation by a Colorado state senator in debate over a land seizure bill in 2015. 

SOVEREIGN CITIZENS

Adherents believe that they are not citizens of the U.S. and therefore do not have to follow its laws. Their oft-used tactic of gumming up the judicial system with phony legal paperwork gained prominence in the 1980s, although the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the movement “has been growing at a fast pace since the late 2000s.” 

COUNTY SUPREMACY

This is the belief that the county sheriff is the highest law enforcement authority and that the American people, through the federal government, have no right to public lands. Rep. Ken Ivory, the public face of the land seizure movement, subscribes to this ideology as seen in his endorsement of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

LAND SEIZURE MOVEMENT

Proponents of land seizures use quasi-legal arguments to underpin their belief that the federal government promised to give American public lands to the states when they entered the Union, and therefore believe that the federal government (and the American people) have no right to public lands.

Learn more

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