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Arizona Lawmaker’s Call for Constitutional Sheriffs Has Radical Roots

An Arizona legislator recently made headlines by comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler as she decried the closures of national parks within her district, part of the ongoing federal shutdown. She posted the following on her Facebook page:

Barton later defended the Obama-Hitler comparison, telling the Arizona Capitol Times that she believes the president is “dictating beyond his authority,” citing gun-control legislation and Obamacare as examples: “It’s not just the death camps. [Hitler] started in the communities, with national health care and gun control. You better read your history. Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people,” she said.

But while the inapt comparison may seem outrageous (the claim about gun control under the Nazis, for one, is entirely bogus), Barton’s plea to call out “Constitutional Sheriffs” to nullify the authority of federal park rangers is even more interesting, and certainly more revealing.

Those “Constitutional Sheriffs” that she hopes can “revoke” the power of federal authorities are actually participants in a far-right antigovernment “Patriot” movement effort — descended from old Posse Comitatus teachings — to enlist the sheriffs of America in the belief that individual county sheriffs are the highest law of the land and possess the power to nullify and even arrest federal authorities.

One of the leaders of the “Constitutional Sheriffs” campaign is longtime Patriot movement figure Richard Mack (who counts Safford, Ariz. — Rep. Barton’s home — as his own childhood hometown). His efforts to enlist law-enforcement officers in the conspiracist worldview of the Patriots and militias dates back to the 1990s, but is also credited with helping to spur the movement’s recent resurgence. In addition to his own Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, Mack is also prominent in the Oath Keepers movement.

Rep. Barton also has a history of far-right activism. Her page at the website of the Arizona House of Representatives trumpets her mid-1990s activism in the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” — an antigovernment land-rights movement popular in the West in the 1980s and ’90s — and says she was “an elected officer in People for the West, a land-rights group.” This latter organization was a major player in the so-called “Wise Use” movement, which in the 1990s became a fertile recruitment ground for the Patriot movement and efforts to organize militias.

The notion of the supremacy of the local sheriff originated with the Posse Comitatus movement, a radical anti-Semitic organization, fueled by conspiracy theories and race hatred, that sought to dismantle the federal government and its civil-rights institutions. The Posse laid the groundwork for various Patriot-movement organizations in the 1990s, including the Montana Freemen and Richard Mack’s own early organizations.

Rep. Barton so far has not responded to the SPLC’s queries regarding her promotion of the “Constitutional Sheriffs” and its Patriot movement agenda.

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