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. …