Inside an Extreme Right-Wing Movement to Create a Judicial Alternate Universe

A retired carpenter from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., by way of the Bronx, longs to be the Johnny Appleseed of the so-called “common-law grand juries” movement — a crusade by extreme-right “sovereign citizens” to create a judicial alternate universe.

His name is John Darash and his not-so-sweet dream of antigovernment grandeur is to plant common-law grand juries in all 3,141 counties in the United States. Darash claims that the bogus and powerless juries have the constitutional — and, of course, God-given — authority to conduct investigations, issue indictments and remove duly elected and appointed government officials from office. That would include pesky judges who insist that everyone must pay their taxes, obey traffic laws and respect property rights, three facts of American life that constantly get sovereign citizens in trouble with the law.

In July, Darash, the founder of the New York State-based National Liberty Alliance, the movement’s heart and soul, told the Anderson Independent Mail of South Carolina that he is well on his way to making his dream a reality. He claimed that the grand juries have been established in 2,296 counties in 36 states. By late September, according to the group’s website, the juries supposedly had spread to 48 states.

“But in order to be successful,” the group declares, “we must first seek the blessings from the ‘GOVERNOR OF THE UNIVERSE’ and build our endeavor upon Him and His principles (1) HONOR, (2) JUSTICE, and (3) MERCY. This is the only sure foundation, any other will succumb to tyrants.”

The common-law grand juries are a scheme right out of the playbook of sovereign citizens, who believe that most federal laws don’t apply to them. Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls Darash a “sovereign citizen guru,” trying to establish “vigilante” grand juries. Darash, however, claims not to be a sovereign citizen, a term, he told the South Carolina newspaper, that “is alien to us.”

But as a variation on the old saying goes, if it files frivolous lawsuits and liens like a sovereign citizen and throws around meaningless indictments like a sovereign citizen and makes outlandish monetary demands on the government like a sovereign, it’s a…

In Florida in January, according to the ADL, a common-law grand jury, or CLGJ, sent a “Writ of Mandamus” to the officials of one county demanding a budget of $1.5 million, office space and equipment. That document was followed up in February with a “Notice of Demand,” warning county officials that the earlier demand was not optional.

The CLGJ crusade is just the latest variation on a long-running antigovernment theme. In the 1980s and 1990s, the sovereign citizen movement formed numerous “common-law courts” around the country. By the end of the decade, at least 27 states had passed or were considering legislation to crack down on the phony courts.

This spring, Darash gave a talk about his dream to a small group at a public library in New York City. The Queens County Libertarian Party sponsored the meeting. As Darash set up his audiovisual equipment for his presentation, one of the libertarians was talking to another about a lawsuit he’d just lost, contesting the state’s ban on midget bowling.

“First of all, the midgets are adults,” the libertarian complained. “They’re not children, even if they’re small. They aren’t being forced to do anything against their will. And it’s not really a sport. It’s an art, its curatorial.”

Darash commiserated with the loser and advised him to challenge the court’s jurisdiction next time.

That, he said, always works for him.

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