Enforce Every Law? Really?

All three Republican candidates for Wisconsin governor have said they will fire local district attorneys who refuse to enforce Wisconsin’s 1849 law against abortion. So, to be consistent, I assume they will also fire prosecutors and remove county sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun control laws or won’t go after voters who actually commit voter fraud.

Nah, I wouldn’t count on that. Last year, in the wake of that spate of mass shootings (as opposed to the most recent spate of mass shootings), several northern county sheriffs pledged not to enforce any new gun control laws that might be passed. Of course, none were forthcoming and the sheriffs didn’t even know what might be proposed, but they wanted to be quick to say they wouldn’t enforce whatever it was that might be coming. Their reasoning was that the new laws — whatever they might be — would violate the Second Amendment. Funny thing. I always thought that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter on what was constitutional. Silly me.

Similarly, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling is refusing to take action against a Racine man who admits committing voter fraud by ordering multiple absentee ballots. This is the very same Sheriff Schmaling who wanted to jail members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission for allowing local election officials to not enter nursing homes to collect ballots during the height of the pandemic — when nursing homes were generally shut down to protect their residents. If Schmaling is so concerned about election integrity then how come he’s not arresting a guy who admits to violating election laws? The answer is that that guy is the same kind of nutty election denier that Schmaling is.

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling want to enforce election laws to the letter… when it suits him.

The other day the Wall Street Journal editorial page blathered on about how wonderful Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is for firing a “progressive prosecutor” who refused to prosecute certain categories of offenses for social justice reasons. Fine. I also cheered when San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin got recalled by the city’s voters for the same reason. But the editorial failed to also wrap the knuckles of conservative law enforcement personnel who say they would refuse to enforce gun control laws.

Can we be just a little bit consistent here, folks? Prosecutors and cops don’t get to decide what’s constitutional. That’s up to the courts and, if it gets that far, the Supremes.

But there’s also a lot of nuance here that nobody seems to want to recognize. Cops and prosecutors use their discretion every day. They have limited resources, so they don’t go after every speeder or every jay walker. But, if speeding and jay walking is creating a dangerous situation in a commercial district, for example, they might enforce the letter of the law for a period in order to address the problem. It’s situational and it’s always in flux.

So, the idea that people on the front lines of law enforcement should enforce every law across the board all the time is just unrealistic. It doesn’t work that way.

District attorneys are elected locally for a reason. Different communities have different standards for enforcement of various laws. San Francisco elected Boudin knowing full well what his intentions were with regard to crimes he would prosecute. When that led to mayhem, they changed their minds about him when he didn’t change his mind about his priorities. Similarly, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine a Dane County DA ever prosecuting someone for having or administering an abortion. If you don’t like that, well, find a new DA or go live in another county. And those northern county sheriffs were pandering to their voters up there with regard to gun control. They need to get elected too.

So, when you’re prepared to be consistent about enforcing laws you don’t like as well as ones that you do, then you can bluster about how the letter of every law needs to be followed.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Enforce Every Law? Really?

  1. “I always thought that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter on what was constitutional. ”

    Yet you don’t seem so sure when writing of their Roe v Wade ruling.

    Let’s just admit we’re all hypocrites.


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