GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While it may be hard to find toilet paper and hand sanitizer, there are no shortages of rumors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leading the rumor parade is the idea that Michigan is, or will soon be under martial law.
It’s happened in the United States before — as recently as 1961. That’s when the governor of Alabama declared martial law to suppress the activities of the Freedom Riders who were protesting civil rights violations in there.
It happened in Hawaii after the attack on Pearl Harbor when a federal judge declared martial law there.
And most famously in the Civil War, when the military took over the civilian government in the south.
But what is true martial law?
News 8 turned to Brigadier General Michael C.H. McDaniel who is an adjunct professor of law at Cooley Law School. He previously served as the Michigan Governor’s Homeland Security Adviser between 2003 and 2009.
“I don’t ever use the term martial law for that very reason, it’s such a vague term,” McDaniel said Tuesday.
On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered nonessential businesses to close and advised people to remain in their homes except for essential travel, such as grocery shopping, picking up carryout food or a medical appointment.
Currently, the federal government is paying for the National Guard, but it remains under civilian control of the governor.
“There’s no way that that is martial law,” McDaniel said.
At the federal level, the use of the troops is part of the Insurrection Act in situations during riots or when state officials are refusing to obey federal orders.
The governor can also activate the military using the Michigan Military Act, in cases of a complete breakdown of the social order.
“That’s last case, everything has gone bad and the sky is falling, the buildings-are-burning kind of scenario. We’re nowhere near that,” McDaniel said.
A violation of the governor’s order is a misdemeanor that would be enforced by local and state officials.
Government officials have been clear in their denial that martial law, where the military takes control of the civilian government, is on the horizon.
“I am not calling for martial law,” Whitmer said. “That is a rumor and that is false.”
While making her declaration calling for nonessential businesses to close and for people to stay home, Whitmer took on the rumor mill directly.
“It is dangerous for people to foment fear and promote bad information,” she said.
That was echoed at the federal level on Monday by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper.
“To be clear, this is not a move toward martial law as some have erroneously claimed,” Esper said.
Government officials say despite the help of the National Guard, civilian leadership is fully in control.
“Our great National Guard Troops are performing tasks, such as supporting drive-thru testing sites, food delivery to protect vulnerable populations and helping states coordinate their local responses,” Esper said.
Dennis Lennox is a conservative writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Time, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.
Lennox says the actions taken by governors, especially Whitmer, are already martial law-like in their scope, using laws he does not believe would stand up to legal challenge.
It would be more honest and lawful, according to Lennox, if the declaration of martial law was simply made.
“She has effectively declared martial law without declaring martial law and the ends should never justify the means,” Lennox said.
McDaniel says that’s not the case in this situation.
“Martial law is one of those really, really misunderstood terms by most people because you see it in movies all the time and it doesn’t work like that,” said McDaniel, adding that the nightmare scenario that would necessitate martial law is not in the foreseeable future.
“The governor when she has invoked her different orders has never talked about sec. 175 of the Michigan Military Act, nor do I think she ever will.”
You can read the Michigan act regulating martial law at legistlature.mi.gov.