The 'common-law courts' have been the most radical and active part of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement for the past three years, making threats and issuing dangerous false legal documents.
For three years now, so-called "common-law courts" have been the most radical and active part of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement. Thousands of people have been threatened, slapped with false liens against their property and "convicted" of crimes such as "treason" by these pseudo-legal, vigilante counterfeits of the real court system.
But as their attacks on democracy have escalated, so has the response.
At least 27 states have passed or are considering legislation that outlaws the activities of these "courts" or strengthens existing sanctions, in many cases prescribing prison terms of five years for even nonviolent offenses. Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice are drawing up national legislation they hope to propose shortly.
Hundreds of common-law advocates have gone to prison for such crimes as fraud, faking legal processes, impersonating, intimidating and threatening officials, even carrying out violent attacks (see Common-Law Victims).
Common-law courts are part of the "sovereignty" movement that got its start with the Posse Comitatus, a violently racist and anti-Semitic group that gained a large following in farm states during the 1980s (see Roots of Common Law).
They represent an attempt by the radical right to create its own legal and financial system, based on an ideology that is fundamentally racist (see White Nation). Advocates have taught followers how to achieve "sovereign" status to immunize themselves from real courts, engage in multimillion-dollar swindles, punish their enemies with bogus property liens and refuse to pay federal taxes.
Now, the authorities are cracking down.
In Texas, a common-law separatist who perpetrated a $1.8 billion fraud faces up to life in prison and $25 million in fines after his conviction on 26 counts of fraud and conspiracy. In Missouri, more than a dozen people were jailed for filing a $10.8 million lien against a judge who refused to throw out a speeding ticket.
In Iowa, a judge fined 32 common-law adherents $32,000 for filing a "just plain goofy" lawsuit. And in Montana, the largest common-law fraud trial yet was set to begin this May (see Justice vs. Justus).
Backing Down the Bullies
"Aggressive prosecution and incarceration are very quickly having an effect," says Richard Wintory, a former deputy attorney general in Oklahoma, which last June made it a felony to falsely claim judicial authority. "The fact is, the people behind this movement are losers and bullies, and when you stand up to bullies, they back down."
Oklahoma is not alone in taking a hard line.
In the last three years, at least 19 states have passed laws to crack down on common-law activities. Typically, the legislation has outlawed filing undocumented liens and made it much easier to get such liens lifted. The laws have criminalized participation in "sham legal processes" and imposed harsh penalties for intimidating public officials by threatening them with liens or common-law "criminal verdicts."
And they've outlawed using civil suits or liens to punish officials for "nonperformance" of imaginary duties.
With each year, the legislative pace has quickened.
In 1995, Idaho, Montana and Washington passed new laws or strengthened existing ones. In 1996, five states did: Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, Montana (second time) and Ohio. In 1997, 12 states acted: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho (second time), Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
By early 1998, Indiana had joined the roster, and legislation was pending in eight more states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Although the conduct prohibited by the legislation in different states is fairly uniform, the penalties often are not. What one state calls a misdemeanor is a felony elsewhere. Some states offer only civil remedies for the aggrieved party, while others impose severe criminal sanctions.
Ten Years and $50,000
Probably the harshest penalties are in Montana, where the Montana Anti-Intimidation Act of 1996 was passed by voter initiative after a series of incidents, including threats to hang officials from bridges or trees. There, politically motivated threats against officials are now punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of as much as $50,000.
Some experts worry that the spate of new laws — which come on top of old-fashioned statutes on fraud and impersonation of public officials — could have a negative effect. Common-law courts, these observers reason, have functioned as a safety valve that allows those angry at government to act on their beliefs without physical violence.
Shutting the pseudo-courts down, they fear, ultimately could bring greater public danger.
"If the crackdown continues, there's no doubt 'paper terrorism' will go away," says Joel Dyer, the author of Harvest of Rage, a recent book on the antigovernment movement. "But it could be replaced by real terrorism."
To Wintory, the former Oklahoma official, the benefits are clear. "We've gone from pleadings that measured in the yards," he says, "to none at all."