Elizabeth Goitein and Joseph Nunn argue that the Insurrection Act is one of the most powerful and wide-ranging authorities available to the President of the United States. The Act authorizes the president to deploy US armed forces and the militia to suppress insurrections, quell civil unrest and domestic violence, and otherwise enforce the law in the face of obstruction. However, despite the wide-reaching powers it grants, the criteria set forth in the Act for its utilization does little in the way of imposing any meaningful constraints.
Compounding the problem is the fact that neither Congress nor the courts share any responsibility for the invocation of the Act—Congress has neither oversight nor approval, and courts have proved reluctant to question the president’s judgment on the deployment of troops in domestic emergencies. The Act therefore functions outside of the fundamental system of checks and balances, increasing the danger that the Act will be invoked without sufficient grounds.
While previous invocations of the Act protected marginalized communities, recent events—particularly the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol—have raised concerns about under what circumstances the Insurrection Act may be invoked, and against whom. The authors trace the history of the Insurrection Act from the early days of the country to the present, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses, and particularly highlighting its potential for abuse. They also detail a proposal for reforming the Insurrection Act, modifying it in a way that would better comply with American democratic ideals.
- Senior Director, Liberty and National Security Program, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.