Right Wing Groups Create Their Own Common-Law Courts

By Michael Janofsky N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 2, 1996 | Go to article overview

Right Wing Groups Create Their Own Common-Law Courts


Michael Janofsky N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


YELLVILLE, Ark. -- In the trailer where he lives alone here in the hills of northern Arkansas, Tom Prahl reads law books and the Bible, taking prodigious notes.

Prahl, 59, a former federal employee living on disability, has only a high school education, but he considers himself a legal expert of a sort. Like thousands of people around the country whose hatred of government has boiled over in recent years, he has found a new authority to replace one he no longer recognizes.

These home-grown legal authorities are common-law courts and have cropped up in outposts of extremism around the United States, as a response to perceived injustices.

In practice, they are more often used as instruments to intimidate government officials and to defraud people who believe they are dealing with a legitimate court.

Adherents to common law courts reject state and federal statutes and all constitutional amendments except the Bill of Rights and base their authority on highly selective interpretations of English common law, Bible passages, U.S. case law and the Constitution.

When they feel they have been wronged, they appoint themselves as judges, issue indictments and arrest warrants and try cases, even though defendants generally ignore their trials and any judgment the court may decree. But the nuisance the courts pose are real, as are the personal threats and millions of dollars lost in their frauds.

Law-enforcement officials and human rights organizations say these groups are the fastest-growing sector of the far right Patriot movement, which includes militias, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and skinheads. Numbers are elusive, but a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit human rights group, has identified more than 800 Patriot groups in all 50 states.

Officials at the Law Center say common law courts are now operating in as many as 40 states, whereas they once had members in only remote Western communities like Jordan, Mont., where a group of common-law-court supporters, the Freemen, are holding off federal agents.

Prahl's group of about a dozen members recently tried to prevent a bank foreclosure of property one of them owned. They showered local lawyers and courts with their documents and ordered officers of the bank into their court.

"Nobody showed up," Prahl said. "So we had to go to their courts, and the guy lost his property."

But other common-law courts have not always acted so meekly.

The Montana Freemen used theirs to file bogus tax liens and intimidate public officials, including Martha A. Bethel, a municipal judge, whom they threatened last year to kidnap and force to face charges of actions they described as "treasonous" after she summoned a local Freeman who had not paid three parking tickets.

In congressional testimony last year describing her encounter with the Freemen, Bethel also said: "A local justice of the peace was told that he would be shot in the head. A deputy county attorney was warned that his home would be burned and that he would be shot in the back."

No harm has come to Bethel or to other officials around the country as a result of common-law court decrees. But law enforcement officials and human rights organizations fear it may only be a matter of time. Common-law courts and other Patriot organizations that promote violence and bigotry have strengthened their bonds as their anti-government fervor has increased.

"Since the middle of last year, the trend we have seen the most is common-law courts using militias as their enforcement arm," through threats and intimidation, said Robert Crawford of the Coalition for Human Dignity, a human-rights organization in Seattle. A new report by the coalition, "Guns and Gavels," says, "Like the militias, common-law courts are dominated by conspiratorial and bigoted ideas and favor tactics -- armed confrontation, threats and pseudo-legal pronouncements -- that attack the very basis of democratic society: the rule of law. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Right Wing Groups Create Their Own Common-Law Courts
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.