In common-law courts, outlaw juries mete out “soft terror” and the government is always guilty

By T.C. Brown

It was a frigid spring day when the militia-minded Montana Freemen barricaded themselves and began their 81-day standoff with the FBI.  The siege outside Jordan, Montana came as no surprise to a group of people who had convened in an old garage in Lithopolis, Ohio shortly before the Montana confrontation reached the point of no return.  The garage was 1,000 miles away, but the people who gathered there shared many of the beliefs of the Montana Freeman and spoke the same political language.
There was a racket that night in Lithopolis, as nearly 60 people, mostly men and all white, milled around in a waxy yellow glow cast by fluorescent lights.  There were suits and ties, jeans and boots, and a few men wore camouflage and Old Testament beards.  Most were between 30 and 60 years old.

The atmosphere was that of a church social.  White paper plates taped unevenly to the back wall offered a menu of sandwiches, sweets and drinks.  A cook slapped bread and cheese on a hot plate, one sandwich at a time, as the crowd lingered at a table heaped with books and pamphlets such as The New World Order, The Coming Revolution, Employment Without a Social Security Number, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, Brain Washing, Titles of Nobility, U.S. Militiaman’s Handbook, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Trance: Transformation of America Through Mind Control (The True Life Story of a CIA Slave).  The last accuses Ronald Reagan and Lamar Alexander of gross misconduct, and it was a big seller.

This was the regular Tuesday meeting of a local chapter of a common-law court.  Its adherents renounced most established state and federal laws in favor of laws promulgated by their own courts.  The chapter that met that night had first convened in a Columbus cafeteria in early 1995.  Since then it had moved to a bingo hall, where as many as 230 people would show up.  Some attendees, it turned out, were undercover police.  The group had tried to evade them by coming to this sleepy village 20 miles southeast of Columbus.

Bill Ellwood, the chief justice of the court, banged his pistol-grip gavel and tried to quiet the crowd.  An unemployed carpenter these days, Ellwood blames his hard times on the U.S. government.  Until 1981, he ran a body shop that specialized in van conversions.  The business folded, he said, because of the energy crisis.  Ellwood came to believe the government orchestrated that crisis.  “I busted my ass for 16 hours a day for nine years and just at the point I was at the pinnacle, I began losing the American dream.

“This isn’t the land of the free and home of the brave,” Ellwood went on, “it’s the land of the fee and home of the slave.  People saw that government was becoming a predator on the American people.  I saw a lot of people wiped out.  They lost everything they had.  That’s caused by the system, and that’s how they maintain ultimate control.”

Ellwood rejects established laws and embraces the common-law court system and all its tenets.  In essence it claims, with references to the Bible, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution (especially the BIll of Rights), that every American is a sovereign entity and that legal power derives from individuals.  The theory stresses the primacy of localities and condemns most state and federal laws as attempts at usurping the “sovereignty” of individuals.

“Forget ever going into their courts,” Ellwood told the crowd.  “There’s no justice there, no truth.  They don’t want the truth.  If they ever summon me they’ll have to come and get me, or my dead body.”  Ellwood then told his audience that it must challenge and educate judges about what he called Americans’ God-given right to have their cases heard before courts of common law -- such as the one convened that night in Lithopolis.

“You all have to start complaining,” he went on.  “You ain’t complaining enough, OK?  Go into the courtrooms and tell the judge, ‘We’re going to quiz you on this later, probably at your hanging.’”

Ellwood then moved to a fundamental part of the program that, with some variations, is practiced where ever common-law courts gather: the convening of a jury.  There were plenty of volunteers.  Twelve men quickly took their seats at a table in the back of the garage.  There are three such courts in Ohio.  Ellwood and other partisans say that more than 1,000 adherents have declared their sovereignty before common-law juries in the state.

First, the jury members renewed their oaths of allegiance to the Constitution.  Then they settled down to the business of the evening.  A handful of people came before the jury to seek its approval to declare their sovereignty (and thus their immunity from the established legal system).  By declaring themselves “Freemen,” they, in effect, began their initiation into the common-law movement.  They also filled out documents called “quiet titles,” which, with plenty of references to weighty legal precedent, asserted that each person was free of most state and federal laws.

James Curtis George, a 60-year-old retired high school teacher from nearby Lancaster, Ohio, looked more like a suburban neighbor in the garage than he did a rebel who had renounced the authority of the U.S. legal system.  Polite and soft-spoken, George wore a plaid shirt and jeans and had a benign expression on his face.  He is a widower and something of a local celebrity for starting a soccer league.

But beneath the gentle exterior, George was fighting mad and eager to tell his story.

His problems began a decade ago, he said, when the IRS ordered payment of taxes in connection with a business deal that had gone sour.  George said the IRS also sought certain information about some of his former business partners and he refused to provide it.

In January 1989 the government began demanding money and filing a series of liens against him.  The agency managed to extract approximately $8,000 from his pension fund.  In December 1992 George declared bankruptcy and then, by his account, began paying more attention over the next few years to so-called patriotic organizations.

In March 1995 he countered by suing seven IRS agents in the Ohio Supreme Court for unlawful seizure of his pension fund.  He maintained the IRS had no jurisdiction to seize money from a “sovereign” citizen.  His case was transferred to federal court two weeks later and was soon afterward rejected.

Early in 1996 George set about trying to ruin the credit of and otherwise intimidate leading representatives of the legal system who had overseen his IRS case -- Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and U.S. District Judge John  Holschuh.

First, George drew up $100 million liens against the judges and placed notices of them in the classified ads of a local newspaper.  Then he notified Moyer and Holschuh by mail of his actions.  Neither man responded.

When the Montana standoff began on March 23, George was poised to take the next step: delivering he paperwork to the county recorder where, without reference to the validity of his charges, the “liens” might officially be recorded.  Even if his targets were to remain unaware of his action, the credit-rating agencies would know all about it once the liens were on record.

“These liens will tie up everything they’ve got financially and shut down their credit so they won’t be able to operate,” George boasted.  “They’ve been doing it to us for years, so we’ll turn the tide and let them see how it feels.”


The history of the common-law movement is relatively short but dramatic, quite apart from the events in Montana.  The movement started in Tampa in 1992 when Emilio Ippolito and his daughter, Susan Mokdad, founded the Constitutional Court of We the People in and for the United States of America and started talking about it through their right-wing network.  “This is not a game,” Mokdad said recently.  “It is serious.  Public servants are committing treasonous acts of sedition against the people, who are trying to hold them accountable.  We are not terrorists.  But this is going to be so big it’s not even funny.  The government will not be able to stop this.  The people are aware.”

By January 1994 activists involved in the white supremacist movement in Montana and Oklahoma had set up common-law courts of their own.  From these beginnings came an extremist right-wing group headquartered in Del City, Oklahoma called the United Sovereigns of America.  United Sovereigns’ leaders took to the road in various parts of the country to teach people the techniques of the common-law court system.  In small towns and big cities they spread the word through three-day seminars, at $125 a person or $150 a couple.  More courts sprouted up.

Judges were the earliest and favorite targets of common-law intimidation.  In 1992 Jerry Patterson, a municipal judge in Marshall, Arkansas, began receiving threatening letters and phone calls from various points across the country.  It turned out that Patterson had sentenced a man to jail who had refused to get a state license plate and instead used a homemade plate with a religious message.

“They threatened me with arrest and old me I would be taken before a common-law court.  I got word I was on a purgatory list to be prayed into hell,” Patterson said.  “One caller said, ‘I would repent if I were you, Jerry.  Some very interesting judgements come from the court of divine justice.’  It was unnerving.”            

Through 1995 and 1994 the movement grew quietly.  In 1995 some advocates grew more aggressive.