A Court Where Lawyers Are Excluded
'Common law' courts are springing up around nation, started by those disenchanted with judiciary
AT about 10 o'clock on Saturday morning outside a motel meeting-room in a suburb that lies between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, some 30 onlookers, plaintiffs, and jurors begin to congregate. Moments from now, the newest court in the DFW metroplex, Our One Supreme Court, will go into session.
First opened in July, Our One Supreme Court is not the Supreme Court of Texas, nor is it affiliated with any other judicial venue in the state or federal systems. It's part of the so-called ''common law'' movement - a parallel unofficial court system. Critics call them kangaroo courts filled with disaffected anarchists. Supporters call them viable alternatives to a legal system which has strayed from the US Constitution and the Bible.
Dozens of these courts have sprouted in the Midwest, South, and West in the past year, according to law-enforcement officials.
''While we all hope that this is a protest movement that will eventually run its course, we cannot ignore it,'' wrote Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer in a letter last month sent to 700 judges throughout his state.
Here in Texas, the court attracts a denim and polyester-clad bunch, mostly white middle-agers and retirees. After greeting each other by first names - for they are almost old friends by now - they chit-chat in the jargon of jurisprudence, talking about ''filings,'' ''affidavits,'' and ''res judicata.''
Judging by its adherents, this is an offshoot of the unnamed movement that includes hard-core conservatives, third-party advocates, tax protesters, and militiamen. Its after-hours and weekend practitioners issue court orders, subpoenas, and say their common-law rulings are superior to the existing legal system.
The environment is one in which racism and anti-Semitism are sometimes in evidence. But that doesn't stop Jeffrey Katz, who, wearing a polo shirt and khakis, comes to be declared a ''freeman.''
''There may be bad apples in there,'' Mr. Katz says of the meeting. ''but the way I figure it, there are a lot more in Washington.''
The owner of a Dallas-area distribution company, Katz, though he is Jewish and drives a Mercedes, is otherwise typical of the common-law crowd.
Common law protest
Katz says that the tax burden carried by small employers is prohibitive, and that government, in a much reduced role, should be financed largely by tariffs, as he says, it once was.
Like most of those who come before Our One Supreme Court, Katz has spent months studying the Constitution and its origins, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, and the legislative acts and regulations that empower agencies like the Internal Revenue Service. And Katz agrees with Jay Enloe, one of the founders of the Dallas-Fort Worth court, who says: ''The federal government and most state and local governments are infringing on our lives in ways that were not delegated to them.''
Another regular at Our One Supreme Court sittings is forklift operator Tim Hampton who pulls up at the wheel of his van with a message posted in vinyl lettering on its rear windshield: ''No One Is Bound to Obey an Unconstitutional Law and No Courts Are Bound To Enforce It, 16th Am Jur 2 Ed 256.'' The license plate on Hampton's van reads: ''Texas Republic/UCC-1-207/Sovereign Citizen.''
In an incident that grew out of a traffic stop earlier this year, Hampton was charged with assaulting a police officer. He's come to the One Supreme Court to ask sympathizers to join him at an upcoming criminal trial, where he will challenge the jurisdiction of the established courts.
At the motel meeting room, the One Supreme Court is starting the Saturday session. A bailiff is selected by acclamation, and he utters a short prayer, invoking the blessings of both God and Jesus Christ. Then the officers of the court take their seats before smoked mirrors at a folding table. The bailiff swears in 12 other volunteers as jurors: theirs is the key role in the courtroom, as the participants say, ''by a jury,'' not ''with a jury.''
The jurors will question witnesses, compel the production of documents, deliberate openly among themselves, and render a finding. The judge, here called a ''monitor,'' acts as a shuffler of papers.
The Dallas-Fort Worth court hears about a dozen cases at a session, and the first one doesn't differ much from the last. Almost all of them are actions to ''quiet title.'' Cases of that type come in two kinds.
In the most common, a plaintiff comes before the jury to testify that he or she is the owner of a parcel of land, and that he or she has published a notice requiring all parties with an interest in it to present their claims before Our One Supreme Court.
'No show' rulings
Though mortgage companies, banks, and the Internal Revenue Service may have elsewhere claimed interests in the parcels, spokesmen for those entities never show up at Our One Supreme Court. And since that's the case, the jurors almost unfailingly find in favor of the plaintiff, by default. Clouds may hang over the property holder's title in the established courts. But in the record books of Our One Supreme Court, the owner's property is free of encumbrance.
The second type of suit frequently brought in the common law court - the kind Katz is bringing - is what's called an action to the quiet title for person.
The plaintiff comes before the jury, passes around a copy of his or her birth certificate, and reads a declaration whose key phrase is, ''I am a private party and not a subject of the United States nor subject to its jurisdiction, as it has no constitutional jurisdiction except in the District of Columbia and its possessions.''
Once the declaration has been accepted by the jury, the plaintiff becomes ''a person of freeman character,'' not obliged to pay income taxes, carry a driver's license, or otherwise submit to the authority of the official courts. The action is a kind of baptismal exercise for activists of the antigovernment movement.
Legal scholars say that the common-law courts are premised on historical myth and judicial misinterpretation. Steven Cooper, a professor of constitutional law at Texas Weslyan University, says that the movement's claims are ''nonsense.'' ''The common law is judge-made law,'' he explains.
But common-law firebrands reject that argument. Mr. Cooper, they say, is also an attorney - a part of the judicial system that was corrupted 50 or even a 150 years ago. In the circles of Our One Supreme Court, attorneys are not to be trusted.
Conflicts between common-law court activists and established authorities have recently led to shooting incidents in both Ohio and Montana. But most participants don't advocate violence. Rather, they hope that state and federal authorities, whom they pepper with briefs of various kinds, will in time be converted to the movement's way of seeing things, and will simply cede authority to Our One Supreme Court and its kin.