Renegade Justice: Common Law Court Movement Sweeps States
They call it the Justice Movement -- an underground system of "common law" courts that has surfaced in as many as 40 states so far.The courts are the legal arm of the militia movement as well as a broad range of like-minded groups, including the Freemen, tax rebels, and Christian extremists.To judges and lawyers in the established legal system, the courts are a bogus form of renegade justice -- a system which has gone to the extreme of handing down death sentences based on the Bible in several western states.But to members of the Patriot Movement, the common law courts offer a chance to regain ancient Christian values or battle abuses of state and federal power. To them, these are "common courts for common people."COURTS OF THE PEOPLE Bob Davis is a hotel owner in Bay County, Michigan, who's established at least two common law courts to bring local issues to trial.Davis, an ancestor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, says he's been studying common law for 40 years."I first heard about the common law 40 years ago from my 97-year-old grayhead grandmother, who lived in Jefferson Davis' era," he says.Davis says that common law courts date back more than 400 years to the time of King John's Magna Carta, which gave common people the right to conduct common law cases.He says the courts simplify matters, sweeping away the need for expensive lawyers and complex trials."If someone puts a fence up on your property, you can have a big, expensive legal battle under the present system, and a year later, that fence will still be up," he says. "But under common law, we resolve the problem faster and with little expense."A COMMON LAW TRIAL Under English common law, the sheriff ("shire-iff") is the highest authority in the county. A person with a legal problem would go to the sheriff with a subpoena list and evidence. The matter is then resolved by the sheriff to both party's satisfaction, or it goes to a trial of one's peers within 90 days. Typically, one's "peers" are white Christian men only -- although that definition does not fit all courts.Under common law, Davis has convened a grand jury in Bay County to hand down indictments. His common law court has a jury of 24 people, with anyone over the age of 18 being eligible.He declines to say what his cases involved, but notes that his indictments were ignored by the Bay County Sheriff's Department. "The sheriffs have to be educated to show what power they have to implement common law," he says.In fact, spreading the word on the common law courts via classified ads or publications has become a priority for the Justice Movement in an attempt to legitimize the system. Clifford Brookins, the African-American head of the Detroit Constitutional Militia, for instance, is renovating a building in northwestern Detroit to establish a people's court to try issues involving everything from drug sales to gang violence. Part of his task is spreading the word to legitimize the court in his community.VIGILANTE JUSTICE As one might expect, the established legal community takes a dim view of such courts, which have been described as "renegade" justice."There's absolutely no validity to these courts," says Christopher De Witt, director of communications for Frank Kelley, Michigan's Attorney General."We already have a court system in our state that is open to anyone. The idea of creating your own common law court is an attempt to circumvent the legal process."De Witt says that a number of Michigan judges and elected officials have been the targets of common law courts, as has been the case in many other states. Their crime? Upholding state and federal laws.Under the rules of the Justice Movement, a citizen's grand jury can summon a judge, elected official, or private citizen to appear before a common law court. If the individual refuses to show, he or she may be tried and sentenced in abstentia."This is harassment of the governmental process," De Witt says. "It's a plain and simple attempt to harass individuals and judges."He adds that the Michigan State Legislature is considering alternatives on what to do about the courts. "People can't just get together and say they're going to form their own legal system. It's anarchy in the sense that everyone would be forming their own government."My view is that our legal system is not perfect, but it's the best we have so far. And people have the power to change it through the ballot box if they like by electing their own judges."THE CONSTITUTION But members of the Justice Movement say that common law courts are upheld by the U.S. Constitution, and some mainstream legal experts agree.Gerry Spence, the constitutional expert who defended white separatist Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge fame, has stated that some common law interpretations are in line with the Constitution. And Bob Davis claims that several established judges have agreed that if a person is tried in a common law court, that individual may not be tried again in an established court.Some, such as the Freemen, rationalize the system by becoming "sovereign" citizens, free of state or federal authority. They may contact their county officials and ask to be taken off the voter roles, freeing them to establish their own separate courts.CHRISTIAN LAWFor Bob Davis and many other Justice Movement members, the law of the land comes straight from God through the teachings of the Bible. They believe that America's Christian founding fathers based the Constitution on tenets of the Bible, from which came our state and federal statutes.For these believers, the law springs from the 1611 version of the King James Bible. Their belief is that Americans should be ruled by the scripture of Old Testament books such as Acts, Corinthians, Exodus and Samuel.Davis, for instance, says that taxation is illegal, because Jesus taught that only "conquered people" can be taxed. He and other Justice Movement followers can only justify paying their taxes under the belief that Americans have been "conquered" by the federal government and the sinister forces behind the "one world government" conspiracy.Hundreds of groups across the U.S. subscribe to the biblical view of law through groups such as the Christian Jural Society.CHRISTIAN EXTREMISTS At the movement's darkest extreme are the teachings of the Christian Identity movement, based in Colorado. Christian Identity holds that white people are the true children of Israel and that Jewish people are demons. Minorities are "beasts of the field" without souls.Based on the teachings of the Old Testament, the sentence of a Christian Identity court is often the same: Death.Why? Because there were no prisons in the days of the tribal Hebrews. Death was the most expedient way of eliminating a troublemaker.Richard Wintory, Chief of the Criminal Division for the State of Oklahoma, says that death sentences have been issued by common law courts in Missouri and Montana. Targets may be judges, bankers, elected officials and government employees, among others.When a death sentence is handed down, it may be filed away for a later date, to be carried out by hit squads from paramilitary groups such as The Order, which killed Denver talk radio host Alan Berg in the 1980s."We have not had death sentences in Oklahoma yet, as in Missouri or Montana, but we've had a pretty ominous series of threats from common law courts," says Wintory, who's investigating the courts for the state.He says that notices of common law courts are increasing in Oklahoma's newspapers. When a judge or citizen refuses to respond to a clandestine court, the individual may be tried and sentenced in abstentia, with threats of kidnapping or worse.REJECTING VIOLENCEFortunately, Christian Identity teachings are highly controversial in the Justice Movement, with many of its members rejecting what has been called a "religion on steroids" by militia-watcher Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center.Nonetheless, Wintory feels that even the less fanatical courts pose a danger."The real danger of common law courts is that they give a veneer of legitimacy to what the militias want to do," he says."Right now, extremists may be held in check by good people in the militias who wouldn't kidnap people for these courts, but once these people think that their actions are cloaked in legality, who knows what they might do?"Most people commit crimes because they rationalize what their doing," Wintory adds. "Most criminals think the same way. These common law courts provide a veneer of legality that could prompt militia groups to become more violent."PAPER BLIZZARD Besides the courts, members of the Justice Movement have launched a blizzard of bogus liens, lawsuits and petitions against public officials and others who earn their displeasure."Demands have been served on every district judge and district attorney in Oklahoma," Wintory says."They don't attempt to file in legitimate court, but will serve citizens with documents that purport to be legitimate to gain advantage through a non-lawful authority," he adds. "Some skate on the edge of what's legal." While the movement may be little known to the general public, thousands of public officials are being targeted with bogus liens across the nation. Gale Norton, the attorney general of Colorado, has reportedly been targeted with millions of dollars in quasi-legal liens against her property.Her crime? Upholding the laws of the State of Colorado and the United States of America.ROUGH JUSTICE The press has not been kind to the Justice Movement and its followers.When the Freemen became the target of an FBI siege at a ranch in Montana last year, the media characterized them as deadbeats, trying to flim-flam the system with rubber checks, bogus liens, and refusals to acknowledge bank foreclosures.What the press has failed to explore, however, are the deeper roots of what's driving Freemen to declare themselves "sovereign" citizens.Colorado journalist Joel Dyer, who is writing a book on the militant harvest of the Farm Crisis, says that the "legal voodoo" of the Freemen is an attempt to escape the injustice of America's reigning legal system.Dyer says that farmers and ranchers turned to common law and radical views in an attempt to save their land in the face of foreclosures and corrupt banking practices.In Dyer's view, expressed in the Boulder Weekly, "What most of these radical anti-government people have in common -- and what most government officials refuse to acknowledge -- is that they were, first and foremost, unable to pay their bills."Often, the only alternative for these farmers seems to be suicide, Dyer says. The shame and despair they feel at letting down their ancestors as well as their descendants is more than they can bear. Some have even been known to throw themselves into farm machinery so that their families can collect the insurance money on their deaths.WHITHER JUSTICE? Unfortunately, legislatures and judges are guided more by scare stories than by attempts to understand the yearning for alternative justice among dispossessed farmers or blacks in Detroit's underclass.Currently, many states are following the progress of proposed legislation in Texas, which is targeted at bogus courts. For many in the established legal system, the idea of common law courts is already dead-on-arrival, its fate determined long ago in rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.