AskDefine | Define usurper

Dictionary Definition

usurper n : one who wrongfully or illegally seizes and holds the place of another [syn: supplanter]

User Contributed Dictionary




(female usurpress)
  1. One who usurps.




  • /y.zyʁ.pe/|lang=fr


  1. To usurp (to seize power)


Extensive Definition

"Usurp" and "Usurpation" redirect here. You might be also looking for Wikipedia:Changing username/Usurpations.
Usurper (lat. usurpare = to seize for use, to use) is a derogatory term used to describe either an illegitimate or controversial claimant to the throne in a monarchy; or a person (perhaps a warlord) who succeeds in establishing an autocracy without securing "the consent of the governed."; or a plurality of persons forming an oligarchy without having their powers delegated authoritatively.
Usurpation is generally disparaged in that it connotes power taken (sometimes by force) rather than legitimately received. Thus, usurpation is in essence high level thievery. A usurper may also be a properly constituted official acting ultra vires, i.e. outside his authority or jurisdiction. In 1649 King Charles I of England was executed as a usurper exceeding his authority and encroaching on that of Parliament.
Among many monarchs which history portrays as usurpers were Richard III, Miguel of Portugal and Habibullah Ghazi of Afghanistan. In three separate sentences the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 mentions "usurpations" of power by the government of King George III as justification for the American Revolution.

Citizenship and Usurpation

The U.S. Declaration of Independence indicates that citizens have the "duty" to resist grievous usurpations, viz. ..."it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government..."
The Declaration was written during the 18th century when many if not most citizens in America let Christian principles bear heavily on the issue of their civic duties. Romans 13 of the New Testament, focuses on submission to the higher powers. But Americans oppressed by George III learned from their ministers (see below, Mayhew) that in Romans 13: 3-4, the Apostle Paul sets forth a reciprocity principle, indicating that when the government defends righteousness, the people should in turn pay it obedience. By extrapolation, conversely, when government fails in its duty as respects right rule, civic duty to obey is suspended. In other words, the powers-that-be sometimes become terrors to the best elements in society, punishing good and rewarding evil, (reversing Romans 13: 3-4), at which point the maxim of the "angelic doctor," Thomas Aquinas, comes into play:
Obedience to secular rulers is obligatory insofar as the order of justice requires us to obey. Consequently, when any governor holds power not justly but rather by means of usurpation, or he issues unjust ordinances, then we have no duty to obey; except perchance to avoid scandal or peril.
According to John Adams, however, it was not Aquinas but an oft reprinted sermon of 1750 by the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew of Boston that provided "the spark that ignited the American Revolution." Mayhew's central point was that usurpers lose their claim on the allegiance of the people in proportion as...
All commands running counter to the declared will of the supreme legislator of heaven and earth, are null and void: And therefore disobedience to them is a duty, not a crime. – Another thing that may be asserted with equal truth and safety, is, that no government is to be submitted to, at the expense of that which is the sole end of all government, – the common good and safety of society….

Judicial Usurpation in the United States

There have been cases of judicial usurpsation throughout judicial history. Well before the rise of Hannibal Barca, ancient Carthage saw its highest tribunal, The Hundred and Four, expand its constitutional powers and convert the Carthaginian republic into a tyranny.
Millenia later, in his Farewell Address President George Washington urged:
If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit.... Black’s Law Dictionary defines usurpation as the “assumption of government or supreme power by force or illegally, in derogation of the constitution and of the rights of the lawful ruler.” "Legislation from the bench" is a case in point, according to Originalists. They argue that black-robed usurpers have targeted the law-making power which the Constitution (Article I, section I) extends to the Congress alone.
Often indicted is the Warren Court (1953-1969) for bringing judicial activism to unprecedented heights. In looking back on his naming of Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Dwight Eisenhower considered the nomination as the most foolish mistake of his presidency.
Such political evaluations are also seconded by some sectors of academia. The November, 1996 and January, 1997 issues of the religious / political journal, First Things, with its symposium, "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics," is noteworthy. A majority of the contributors had come to the conclusion that the United States had already arrived (or nearly so) at a despotism or dictatorship headed by the Federal Judiciary. One of the participants in this symposium, Judge Robert Bork, would later publish his, Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges (2003). There Bork announces that "... what judges have wrought is a coup d’état, – slow-moving and genteel, but a coup d’état nonetheless….
Originalists and other critics contend that the U.S. Constitution is being depreciated into window dressing for enforced social change, i.e. social engineering, by an unelected and irremovable oligarchy of nine. To reinforce this tendency intellectually, according to Dr. Robert J. McKeever, a school of thought has evolved in American law schools which unapologetically defends the exercise of raw judicial power. Lawyers are thus trained to the view that the power of judicial review goes well beyond interpreting the Constitution and the laws passed by the Legislative Branch.

Reform proposals

In the United States there is a wide array of proposed ways to "dethrone the Juristocracy." They range from defiant resistance by other branches of government, to more vigorous use of existing legal means, to amending the U.S. Constitution.
In 2006, Patrick Buchanan wrote in favor of the first approach. After the Supreme Court of New Jersey gave the legislature six months to enact legislation liberalizing the marriage laws, (Lewis v. Harris), Buchanan urged Gov. Jon Corzine to echo Andrew Jackson in Worcester v. Georgia and “inform the New Jersey Supreme Court he will neither submit nor sign the law it has ordered enacted.” Concluded Buchanan: “Such judges need to be defied and they need to be impeached. Not obeyed.” Corzine paid no heed to the aforesaid advice and signed the legislation.
Another approach to check judicial activism is impeachment, advocated, for example, by former U.S. House leader, Tom DeLay (R, Texas). The impeachment option has, however, never in history been used successfully to oust a sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Equally unsuccessful under currently available legal means has been the tactic of court packing, attempted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. Frustrated by the nullification of his New Deal economic recovery plans by “nine old men,” FDR tried to change the complexion of the Supreme Court by increasing its membership to fifteen, i.e. by adding six new members pledged to stop overruling the President’s agenda. FDR articulated the same rationale that drives would-be reformers today:
I want – as all Americans want – an independent judiciary as proposed by the framers of the Constitution. That means a Supreme Court that will enforce the Constitution as written; that will refuse to amend the Constitution by the arbitrary exercise of judicial power – amendment by judicial say-so. More practical, perhaps, than any of the foregoing approaches is jurisdiction stripping. Under Article III, sect. 2 of the Constitution, the Congress may deny Federal Courts the ability to hear certain classes of claims, thereby making certain legislative or executive actions unreviewable by the judiciary. This approach is controversial, but history does offer cases of its successful use in practice.
Amending the constitution is a strategy that offers a number of tactical ways to restrain the courts. In 1996, Judge Robert Bork proposed making decisions of the Federal Courts subject to revision by Congress, and decisions of state courts by the respective state legislature. By 2003, apparently, Bork had second thoughts. In his Coercing Virtue, Bork’s section on “Possible Remedies for Judicial Activism” omits his earlier plan. He notes that the seldom used power of legislatures in Canada to override some judicial rulings (see Notwithstanding Clause) has not only been ineffective in curbing the courts, but …
Perversely, it may even encourage activism by allowing Canadian judges to claim increased freedom to innovate precisely on the grounds that they are subject to democratic revision if they are seen to go too far.
Another type of constitutional amendment intended to restrain the courts would be judicial term limits. Again, the possibility of an unintended consequence has diminished support for this proposed reform. Max Boot notes that term limits might backfire because…
Knowing that they’ll only be on the bench a short while, judges might be more determined to make a splash right away by issuing groundbreaking activist decisions that will earn them a place in legal history. Instead Boot prefers a modified version of a proposal put forward by the former attorney general of Nebraska, Harvard educated Don Stenberg. Under a Stenberg amendment, only the Supreme Court could override a statute, and then only by a two-thirds vote.
A more sweeping effort at constitutional amending is proposed in Robert Struble’s Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter three. Struble’s recommended solution is twofold: (1) Suppliment Article III, section 2 with a sunset clause that makes jurisdiction stripping less permanent and therefore less fearsome for a reformed Congress to exercise; (2) accompany every jurisdiction stripping act of Congress with an automatic pruning of accumulated case precedent in the respective jurisdiction. Even after the sunset provisions restore the respective jurisdiction(s), the surgical removal of some of what Struble terms, “the overgrown thicket of precedent,” would be final -- unless a two-thirds vote of Congress restores it.


usurper in Czech: Uzurpátor
usurper in German: Usurpation
usurper in Dutch: Usurpator
usurper in Japanese: 皇位簒奪
usurper in Norwegian: Usurpasjon
usurper in Russian: Узурпация
usurper in Finnish: Usurpaattori
usurper in Swedish: Usurpator
usurper in Chinese: 篡位

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Simon Legree, absolute monarch, absolute ruler, all-powerful ruler, arrogator, autarch, autocrat, caesar, commissar, czar, despot, dictator, disciplinarian, driver, duce, hard master, martinet, oligarch, oppressor, pharaoh, pretender, slave driver, stickler, tyrant, warlord
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