Common-Law Victims

'Paper terrorism' isn't just on paper

For Karen Mathews, a California county court recorder viciously attacked by an antigovernment common-law zealot, the fear never ends.

Mathews — whose "crime" was to refuse to remove IRS liens on a common-law court member's property — carries a handgun at all times. She's had training in martial arts. She's been threatened, had bullets fired through her office windows, discovered a fake bomb planted under her car, and opened a package sent to her enclosing a single bullet and a chilling note: "The next bullet will be directed to your head."

Soon, she faces more surgery to repair serious injuries received during the attack four years ago in her Modesto garage. Mathews was severely beaten and stabbed, her legs were slashed with a knife and she was sodomized with a gun.

Now, she fears, it's happening again.

Unlike some officials who have decided to call it quits in the face of common-law terror, Mathews stayed on at her once obscure job as elected recorder of Stanislaus County courts. Her reward? Another angry man with links to the common-law movement has filed a civil suit against her.

"These yahoos still come into my office," Mathews sighs, even though her attacker and the Juris Christian Assembly members who paid him drew lengthy prison sentences. "I never know when one of them might decide, 'Let's finish her off.'"

When common-law "courts" and related pseudo-legal bodies began appearing in large numbers in the early 1990s, officials were concerned but not panicked. After all, most reasoned, these courts were involved only in "paper terrorism" — the filing of bogus property liens, warrants, writs and other documents.

Occasionally, the courts found officials guilty of "treason," but none of the "capital" convictions were enforced.

Judges Take Up the Gun
But much has changed in the last few years.

Death threats have been delivered to judges, prosecutors, recorders and other officials. Leaders of the Republic of Texas, a common-law separatist group, shot their way into a neighboring couple's home, seriously injuring the man. Armed common-law court members marched into a real court in Montana, while others threatened to hang a local official from a bridge.

A common-law leader in Ohio threatened a police officer with a gun after a routine traffic stop, only to be shot down himself.

"Judges are intensely aware of security now," says Elizabeth Francis, a political scientist and one of the authors of a national survey of 431 state and local judges conducted for the University of Nevada.

"Preliminary studies showed up to a third of them carry firearms [because of common-law threats]. The whole phenomenon could have a chilling effect on people's desire to be judges."

A whopping 55 percent of state and local judges reported encounters with apparent common-law advocates who challenged their authority. Many of these challengers went beyond belligerence. Twelve percent physically threatened the judges; 30 percent sued them in real courts; and 13 percent filed bogus liens against the judges' property.

"There's a strong sense of spread" of common-law activities, Francis says. "It isn't just Montana, Idaho, Texas and New Mexico any more. It is nationwide."

At the same time, a survey by the U.S. Marshals Service shows threats against federal judicial officials have skyrocketed, from 271 in 1996 to 612 in 1997. The growth was apparently largely driven by common-law activity.

The survey found that Florida ranked top in the nation last year, with 59 threats against judicial officials reported to the Marshals Service. Other leading states were California (52); Washington, D.C. (46); Texas (35); New York (34); Illinois and Pennsylvania (21); Michigan (20), and Georgia and Washington (15).

The damage, particularly the financial damage, has not been limited to officials. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, have had to pay thousands of dollars to clear false property liens filed by common-law advocates. (Even liens with no legal basis can be filed easily in most jurisdictions, although this is changing.

The liens cloud legal titles, making it impossible to sell property such as homes or cars until they're cleared.) The liens typically are filed against those seen as enemies by common-law advocates.

Sometimes, that doesn't take much.