A dog-whistle for the hysterical and unlettered

CNN reports that during his speech today to the National Sheriff’s Association, Attorney General Sessions said this:

I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process. The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.

Outrage followed. Not from the sheriffs, of course, but from the left.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D. Haw.) led the charge. He tweeted:

Do you know anyone who says “Anglo-American heritage” in a sentence? What could possibly be the purpose of saying that other than to pit Americans against each other? For the chief law enforcement officer to use a dog whistle like that is appalling. Best NO vote I ever cast.

Brian Schatz must be a moron. There is, indeed, an Anglo-American tradition in the law, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Charles Cooke did some digging and found a constitutional law professor who cited that very tradition.

From Barack Obama in 2006:

The world is watching what we do today in America. They will know what we do here today, and they will treat all of us accordingly in the future—our soldiers, our diplomats, our journalists, anybody who travels beyond these borders. I hope we remember this as we go forward. I sincerely hope we can protect what has been called the “great writ”—a writ that has been in place in the Anglo-American legal system for over 700 years.

Obama invoked the same tradition in 2008, while campaigning for the presidency. The Washington Post reported:

Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for more than a decade, said captured suspects deserve to file writs of habeus corpus. Calling it “the foundation of Anglo-American law,” he said the principle “says very simply: If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ And say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.’”

As President, Obama continued to speak of the Anglo-American legal tradition. From CBS News:

Obama would not say whether [closing Gitmo] could be achieved within the first 100 days of his term, citing the challenge of creating a balanced process “that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo-American legal system, but doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.

The position of sheriff fits well Anglo-American law enforcement system, just as Sessions said. I’m not just talking about the sheriff’s well known role in American — e.g., the Wild West. It’s one of my favorite facts that, as Cooke points out, the word sheriff, which comes to us from England, is a combination of the words “shire” and “reeve.”

Cooke concludes:

[Sessions’s usage] is common, it is quotidian, it is downright normal. It is found in legal textbooks, in works of history, and in Supreme Court opinions alike.

More important, it’s extremely useful. We need a term that means “long within the unusual legal tradition that predated the independence of this nation,” and “Anglo-American” works perfectly in that role. If we allow it to be taken from us by the hysterical and the unlettered, we’ll be considerably worse off for it.

The enemies of freedom will be better off, though.

Historical illiteracy was a necessary condition for Schatz’s statement, but not a sufficient one. Some degree of lack of respect, if not contempt, for our legal tradition — the one that protects our freedoms — must also have been at play.

It’s a frightening cocktail.

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