Obeying the Law

Bill Neinast


There is a contest over which mantra about obeying the law is king.  The assertion that ignorance of the law is no excuse wore the crown for some time.

The crown is tilting, however, toward more cynical views of being a law abiding country.  Now, it is more apt to be, “That’s a stupid law, so I do not have to obey it,” or, more cynically, “Everybody else is ignoring it, so why should I have to follow it?”

Ignoring the laws you do not like has a long history.  The idea dates back to at least 1803.  That is when President Thomas Jefferson told the Supreme Court, in effect, that you made the law, so you enforce it.

You may recall from your history classes that this involved the case of Marbury vs. Madison that established the rule of judicial review of legislative and executive actions (It actually reaffirmed the English common law on the point.).

One of the court’s conclusions was that William Marbury was entitled to a commission establishing him as a Justice of the Peace.

Marbury was among the 16 “Midnight Judges” appointed by President John Adams a few days before he left office. The commission to confirm his appointment, however, had not been issued when Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency.

Because of political differences, Jefferson  instructed his Secretary of State not to issue the warrant necessary for Marbury to assume duties as a JP.   So he never became Judge Marbury.

In the intervening years since 1803 there have been other instances of officials ignoring the law.  This extends from the nation’s capitol down through local governments. 

Recently, this practice has become most apparent in the immigration area.  First, Washington began ignoring the problem and made no serious attempt to deport illegals.  Cities and counties observed and learned the lesson well.  They established sanctuary cities and counties and refused to cooperate with the limited federal attempts to identify and deport a few here illegally.

President Obama then made it official.  After claiming repeatedly that he had no authority to do so, he issued an Executive Order not to deport certain undocumented individuals and families.

There is no surprise, then, when individuals take the attitude that if official agencies can ignore laws they do not like, individuals can too.  Everybody else is ignoring the law so why shouldn’t we?

Such beliefs and practices result in headlines like this one on Page 1 of the Burleson County Tribune several weeks ago,  “Local JP Says He Will Defy Supreme Court.”  The defiance would be his refusal to marry same sex couples.

Did President Jefferson’s defiance of the Supreme Court in 1803 give a JP in Central Texas the right to do the same thing in 2015?  Some people obviously think so.

So here’s the perspective.

The Constitution established the legislative, executive, and judicial branches as equal branches of the government. Each has law making authority.

The Congress enacts legislation published in the U.S. Code.  The President issues Executive Orders published in the Federal Register.  Judicial decisions are published in case books.  The millions of words printed in those books are the law of the land.

Life would be more pleasant if we would return to being a law abiding nation.   That can be done by not picking and choosing which laws we like enough to follow and not believing it is OK to ignore a law because everyone else is doing it.

Let’s give it a try.


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