The resolution, which was approved Tuesday by the Oroville City Council by a 6-1 vote, declares the town a “Constitutional Republic City,” a designation it says enables the city to declare state and federal government orders it considers “unconstitutional” null and void. The move is largely in response to COVID-19-related restrictions and vaccine mandates, particularly those imposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I proposed it after 18 months of increasingly intrusive executive mandates and what I felt to be excessive overreach by our government,” said Vice Mayor Scott Thomson, the resolution’s main sponsor. “After the failed recall in California, our state governor seems to [be] on a rampage and the mandates are getting more intrusive. Now he’s going after our kids and schools.”
Local residents who supported the resolution turned out in large numbers. “We hope that becoming a constitutional republic city is the best step to regain and preserve our inalienable rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. What will be left if we do not have it? If we do not have bodily autonomy?” said one speaker who was moved to tears. “What else do they want me to let them do to my children? Where does it stop?”
The resolution’s advocates on the council offered a hodgepodge of rationalizations for the resolution’s language. A “democracy is run by people and republic is run by the laws of constitution,” Mayor Chuck Reynolds told the local Enterprise-Record newspaper.
“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts,” Reynolds said. “A constitutional republic makes America a successful nation. Rights are by the people, for the people.”
“Constitutionalist” ideology preaches that the federal government is heavily constrained by the text of the Constitution, limited almost entirely to a national defense. Otherwise, they believe, the document prohibits federal land ownership, the ability to enforce civil rights, environmental, education, and other federal statutes. None of these ideological tenets have any basis in reality, especially not in settled law; like most far-right belief systems, it’s built on conspiracy theories and disinformation.
The Oroville region, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, has been a hotbed of COVID denialism. In 2020, Oroville refused to enforce state prohibitions on indoor dining. This fall, Butte County chose not to recommend a mask mandate, even as COVID cases were surging at the local medical center. The county has a vaccination rate of about 48%.
Thomson told KRCR-TV in an email that “this has to do with the large amount of mandates that are affecting every aspect of our lives and our kids’ lives. The American culture and way of life is being challenged at its very core and perverted by radicalized politicians who have forgotten that, as a republic, the power belongs to the people. Our founders understood the dangers of those who would like to have more control over the people, and thus they set up our country with a firm foundation that separated the powers, by forming a Republic, and protected our God-given rights, in the founding documents in the US Constitution. America is already a Constitutional Republic, however, I put this declaration out for the agenda as a reminder and a statement that we the people in Oroville are not amicable to the tyranny of power-hungry politicians.”
“I assure you folks that great thought was put into every bit of this,” Reynolds said. “Nobody willy-nilly threw something to grandstand.”
However, even one of the council members who supported the resolution noted that it had “no teeth” and was simply a “political statement.” One member of the council noted that the city receives millions of dollar in federal support, and wondered: “Will Oroville be able to stand alone and sustain itself?”
Oroville’s city attorney, Scott Huber, quickly assured her: “I am quite certain that this would not result in any loss of funding for the city. In the event that it could in the future you could revise this and do what you will but this is not going to put it jeopardy any state or federal funding.”
Lisa Pruitt, a rural law expert at the University of California-Davis, told The Guardian that the empty gesture does not grant Oroville more power or the ability to ignore state law.
“It seems to make the people of Oroville feel better that their city council has made this gesture but as a practical matter it doesn’t make any difference,” Pruitt said.
This, in fact, is the problem with all “constitutionalist” interpretations of the law: They are fabrications—legalistic fantasies that have no basis in the operative U.S. codes, and have never been upheld or otherwise vindicated by any court in the country.
“A municipality cannot unilaterally declare itself not subject to the laws of the state of California,” Pruitt said. “Whatever they mean by constitutional republic you can’t say hocus pocus and make it happen.”
“Constitutionalists,” however, have been waving their magic wands uselessly in the air since they first started organizing as part of the far-right Patriot Movement of the 1990s. Drawing on ideas first proposed by the rabidly racist Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s, outfits like the Montana Freemen created a legal conflict that culminated in an 81-day armed standoff in 1996.
This ideology also engendered the “Sovereign Citizen” movement, whose adherents, as the ADL explains, refer to themselves variously as “freemen” and “constitutionalists,” and strive constantly to separate themselves from the “illegitimate” government. Many renounce their U.S. citizenship, which they believe enslaves them to a “corporate entity.”
Over the years, “constitutionalists” have engaged in a number of armed conflicts with various authorities, particularly federal officials. In 2014, “constitutionalist” rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in armed standoff in Nevada over his grazing rights; then, in 2016, his sons led the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon.
Among the main venues for spreading “constitutionalist” ideas in recent years have been Patriot organizations like the Oath Keepers and “Three Percent” militias. Both groups were heavily involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
However, “constitutionalists” also have been worming their way into positions of local authority through their successful recruitment of law enforcement officers, primarily through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which also was heavily involved in the two Bundy standoffs. These extremists are good at creating an appearance of establishment normalcy, but inevitably, both their bigotry and their seditionist politics eventually manifest themselves.