Montana viewpoint: The Court of John Doe

Jim Elliott

By Jim Elliott

I have been following the drama of the Bundy occupation of a bird sanctuary in Oregon with great interest, in large part because in Sanders County where I live many of Bundy’s beliefs thrive.

We have a state senator who believes that the federal government should “return” federal land to the states, although the land in question has never belonged to the states; a Sheriff (who from all reports is a good guy) who holds that the office of sheriff is the highest agency of law enforcement in the county and that state and federal law enforcement agents are subservient to that office; and a group of people – led by political candidates – who are putting on workshops on emergency preparedness that feature discussions on firearms and reloading ammunition, as well as how to accumulate one or two years supply of food.

The first workshop was advertised as providing the citizens with the ability to act in times of natural disaster and “social upheaval,” and was well attended.

I have lived here a long time and cannot recall a time when a flood or forest fire has required us to be armed, and so that part of the training must be for the social upheaval portion of the program. Really, the only social upheaval I have witnessed was in 1988 when the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations talked about moving from Idaho to Noxon, Montana. That scared the local citizenry enough that a couple of people formed an organization against the move and invited civic leaders from the Idaho home town of the Aryan Nations to speak at a meeting, which drew as many supporters as there were fans at games of Noxon’s championship basketball team. And in the same gym, too.

One of the presenters was a Catholic Priest who was alive only because he was on the good side of his refrigerator when a pipe bomb went off. Sort of a divine intervention organized by God and Frigidaire. These guys played rough, and for keeps. If you haven’t pinned it down yet, that was attempted murder.

But I suspect that these are not the ones now thought of as causing “social upheaval,” which leads me to wonder whether the preparedness training will prevent social upheaval or foster it.

Much of this would depend on how presenters of the preparedness workshop interpret the Constitution, and from what I see it’s probably not a lot different than the way the Bundy’s read it, because the same “pocket constitution” that the Bundys carry was distributed.

This would be the Skousen annotated edition which was written by the Mormon founder of the National Center for Constitutional Studies. The Mormon Church, by the way, condemned Bundy’s actions. A very interesting blog (moderatebutpassionate.com) covering these topics is written by a Mormon bishop who was a close friend of LaVoy Finicum, the occupier who was killed by Oregon State Troopers. He mourns Finicum, but does not condone Finicum’s actions. It is a touching article.

When Cliven Bundy, charged with several felonies, claims that the federal government has no jurisdiction over him or what he does, it means that he basically writes his own law. The question is, does that entitle him to enforce his own law against those who offend him, and the answer seems to be “yes;” especially if you can muster 400 armed supporters to hold off federal law enforcement.

Now, if Bundy can interpret the Constitution to suit his needs and beliefs, why can’t anyone? It seems preposterous that a thief or a murderer could claim that the court they are being tried in has no jurisdiction, but it certainly invites that possibility. Could anyone demand that a Court of Competent Jurisdiction is the one that best reflects their Constitutional beliefs? You have the legally recognized court, and then you have the Court of John Doe.

There are roughly 217 Christian denominations and 33,000 non-denominational churches in America, which implies a vast number of interpretations of the Bible, and they all seem to be able to co-exist peacefully. There is one legal system based on the Constitution, which is the arbiter of, shall we say, differences of opinion. We can live with a multitude of religious organizations, but we cannot function as a nation with more than one legal system.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.