Martial law requires Congress

But don’t rule out them begging the God-Emperor to accept it:

Recently, a rumor that President Trump would impose martial law in response to the COVID-19 pandemic went viral. The story gained enough traction that the National Security Council stepped in to reassure the public it was fake. But Americans, used to dystopian films featuring government takeovers of quiet civilian life, still wonder: Could it happen here?

The answer is probably no — at least under circumstances as they now stand.

The president’s power to declare martial law is not nearly as broad as rumors suggest. The states’ powers are greater, but they too are subject to important restrictions. Nonetheless, uncertainties in the law show the need for Congress and state legislatures to clarify the scope and limits of martial law.

The concept of “martial law” is not well understood, let alone defined, in American law. It usually refers to military forces taking over the functions of ordinary civilian government. The key words are “taking over.” Although the military often provides support and assistance for certain activities performed by civilian authorities — such as carrying out search-and-rescue missions in the aftermath of a natural disaster — actual displacement of civilian government represents a dramatic departure from normal practice.

But it has happened.

There was a period in American history when martial law was relatively common. Between 1857 and 1945, martial law was declared 70 times in the United States. In most cases, a state governor imposed it on a city, county or group of counties. This was sometimes in response to violent civil unrest but more often to break strikes on behalf of business interests. These declarations lasted anywhere from days to years. Martial law was last declared in the United States in 1966, when the governor of California imposed it to suppress unrest in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco after a white police officer shot a black teenager.

The federal government has declared martial law too, though far less frequently. Most recently, Hawaii was placed under martial law for the majority of World War II. The U.S. Army controlled every aspect of civilian life on the islands, from criminal justice to curbside trash removal.

We’ll see. It would certainly be remarkable to see the House of Representatives shift from impeaching the President to passing a law declaring martial law and asking him to sign it. But, at this point, would it really be all that surprising?

In the meantime, this picture on Google from March 31 is intriguing.