DENVER - At first glance it looked like just another legal document, no different from the hundreds that wind up on Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton's desk every day.
But something was clearly amiss. The document came from a panel dubiously titled the "One Supreme Court of North Carolina." And even by today's standards of judicial activism, the ruling was mind-boggling. It declared all Colorado laws and law enforcement agencies illegal and invalid.
What's more, a slew of state officials, including Mrs. Norton, were found guilty of enforcing the "illegal" laws and assessed punitive damages to the tune of $3.7 billion - each.
"That's a lot more zeroes than on any check I've ever written," she said with a laugh. Still, she takes such filings seriously. "These documents are clearly false, and it's a question of fraud."
Like thousands of other public officials, Mrs. Norton had inadvertently run afoul of a bogus but burgeoning underground legal system known as the "courts of common law." Known as the judicial wing of the "patriot" movement, such people's courts are springing up across the nation among those with a strong anti-government bent and a legal ax to grind.
In the Norton case, authorities believe the "ruling" was sought by Russell Landers and Dana Dudley, the two Colorado fugitives who holed up at the Freemen compound during the FBI siege in Jordan, Mont.
"They live in a mythical world of common law, which only they can interpret," said Garfield, Mont., County Attorney Nickolas Murnion at a November congressional hearing. "As ludicrous as it sounds, they believe it completely and are apparently willing to defend it with guns and their lives." Their refusal to recognize federal and state law has its roots in the New Deal, when Congress approved the War and Emergency Powers Act of 1933 to help President Franklin D. Roosevelt grapple with the Great Depression. Because the Congress never rescinded the emergency powers, common-law advocates say the current government and its laws - including those mandating federal income tax, driver's licenses and vehicle registration - are illegal.
Gene Schroeder, a Colorado Springs veterinarian active in the common-law movement, said the courts are a legitimate response to an illegitimate government.
"Once the feds begin to do things outside the authority delegated to them by the Constitution, under the First Amendment the people do have a right to assemble and petition for redress," Dr. Schroeder said.
In an April report titled "False Patriots," the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that common-law courts are now being conducted in at least 40 states. They appoint judges, select juries, hear evidence and render verdicts, all issued on documents that look official except for the odd court names and strange declarations.
Even experienced clerks and law enforcement officials have been fooled. Arapahoe County (Colo.) Sheriff's Department Lt. Keith Schooler recalls serving papers in February issued by a common-law court on a local church before realizing they were bogus.
"We got a call back saying, `What's the meaning of this?' which was the first clue I had that anything was going on," said Lt. …