Apr 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

When martial law has been declared in the U.S.

Martial law declarations, 1814–1963
Data: Brennan Center for Justice; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Martial law has been declared over 60 times in the nation's history but not by a president since the Civil War, according to extensive research from the Brennan Center.

Why it matters: It's a widely misunderstood law that's gotten more attention in the Trump era — most recently after leaked texts from the Jan. 6 committee's investigation showed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) discussing whether then-President Trump should have invoked it following the Capitol riot.

  • Invoking martial law in times of national emergency or violent civil unrest essentially puts the military in charge.
  • That declaration allows laws to be enforced by soldiers instead of local police, puts policy decisions in the hands of military officers and brings accused criminals in front of military tribunals — not civilian courts.

Be smart: The Brennan Center's comprehensive report "concludes that under current law, the pres­id­ent lacks any author­ity to declare martial law."

  • State officials have the power to make this declaration, but it remains inconclusive whether Congress can authorize a president to do so.
  • That's because the Supreme Court "has never clearly indic­ated whether the pres­id­ent could unilat­er­ally declare martial law or if Congress would first need to author­ize it," the center explains.
  • History shows that governors have declared martial law more often than the federal govern­ment.

Don't forget: Back in December 2020, Axios' Jonathan Swan reported that Trump officials were getting increasingly worried about the president's perceived power grab.

  • They cited murmurs about martial law from former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
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