‘Sovereign citizens’ plaster courts with bogus legal filings–and some turn to violence

By Lorelei Laird (ABA Journal)

The Atta family locked up their Temecula, Calif., home and went on vacation in 2012. While they were gone, Victor Cheng moved in.

Cheng had owned the home before the Attas, but he lost it in foreclosure. Nonetheless, he filed a fraudulent deed with the county recorder’s office, transferred the utilities into his name and even tried to evict the Attas after their return. During his prosecution for burglary, trespassing and filing a false document, he insisted that he was not the person being prosecuted because the indictment spelled his name in all capital letters.

• Cherron Phillips of Chicago was upset that she was barred from the courtroom during her brother’s trial on drug charges. So she filed false $100 billion liens against the property of 12 people involved in the case—including the U.S. attorney and chief judge then serving in the Northern District of Illinois. When she was prosecuted, she insisted on representing herself, called herself River Tali El Bey, then filed numerous documents that the judge called “clotted nonsense.”

• In New Jersey, Ronald Ottaviano’s company offered a debt elimination plan that purported to draw money from a secret bank account maintained by the U.S. Treasury in each citizen’s name. Potential customers were told that these fabricated accounts were set up to allow the government to borrow against each citizen’s earnings, and that individuals who file the right papers can gain access to the accounts. After his own employees turned him in, Ottaviano defended himself against charges of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. He told the court that he didn’t believe he was subject to U.S. taxes.

What all of these cases have in common is that they are part of a movement of “sovereign citizens,” according to law enforcement officials. Sovereigns—also called “freemen on the land” or “organic citizens”—believe that an illegitimate, usurper federal government has taken over, and that they don’t have to pay taxes, pull over their cars for police or obey any other law they don’t like.

These beliefs may sound silly, but sovereigns can be difficult to laugh off. For one thing, even though they don’t believe they’re subject to laws, they use laws as weapons. The FBI has called sovereigns “paper terrorists” because they so often fight perceived enemies—generally public employees—by filing false liens, false tax documents or spurious lawsuits. These can hurt the victim’s credit, stymie attempts to sell or refinance property, and take years and thousands in legal fees to correct.



Illustration by Adam McCauley

The trouble doesn’t stop there. When involved in any legal matter, from pet licensing to serious criminal charges, sovereigns are known for filing legal-sounding gibberish, usually pro se, learned from other sovereigns who sell lessons in “law” online. Frequently, they cite the Uniform Commercial Code, maritime law and the Bible.

They’re also known for the sheer volume of their filings, which can double the size of a normal docket. This can frustrate and delay courts as they consider the defendant’s competence and otherwise try to minimize disruptions. With many court systems fighting heavy caseloads and budget cuts, these extra headaches are unwelcome.

And though most sovereigns are not violent, there are exceptions. The FBI has declared them to be domestic terrorists because they occasionally get into armed confrontations with law enforcement. A sovereign father and son, Jerry and Joseph Kane, were responsible for the 2010 murders of two West Memphis, Ark., police officers, during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Jerry Kane was a known figure within the sovereign movement, traveling the country to sell ideas on debt elimination and stopping foreclosure. His girlfriend, Donna Lee Wray, later made news by flooding Tampa’s local government with paperwork when they wanted her to get a dog license.

Nor are officers of the court immune, says J.J. MacNab, a Bethesda, Md., insurance analyst and litigation consultant who has tracked the sovereign movement for years.

“In the recent past, it’s mostly been about police officers,” says MacNab, who has chaired several ABA committees as an associate member. “But now we’re looking at judges, county clerks, prosecutors—even public defenders.”

Some sovereigns hold trials in their own “common-law courts,” convicting public officials in absentia and sentencing them to death for “treason.” This can be seen as an indirect threat against those “convicted.”

But the violence can also be direct. Alaskans Lonnie and Karen Vernon, a couple involved in the Alaska militia run by political activist Schaeffer Cox, plotted to kill a federal judge and an IRS officer who handled their tax prosecution. At the behest of his friend Robert Chapman—a sovereign also known as “General Chapman”—sovereign John Ridge Emery III handed a Charlotte County, Fla., traffic judge an envelope he believed contained anthrax.

Sovereign citizens are not considered to be an organized group. According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, they’re difficult to count because they lack a leader or a unified ideology. The SPLC roughly estimated that there were 300,000 sovereigns in the U.S. in 2011, with about a third, or 100,000, as hard-core believers, Potok says. He suspects the percentage of hard-core believers has since increased.

“There’s still a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggesting it is spreading,” Potok says. “It is the single most widespread idea from the radical right.”

According to the SPLC, sovereigns generally believe the legitimate U.S. government has been overthrown and replaced—perhaps during the Civil War or in 1933, when the gold standard for currency was abandoned. Because the country was then broke, the story goes, its leaders set up Treasury accounts in the name of each baby born in the United States, permitting the government to borrow against that person’s future labor. Each account is supposedly organized as a trust or a corporation.

If you can legally separate this “strawman” account from your person, sovereigns believe, you can use the money for your own purposes and put yourself outside the reach of the law. This “redemption” is generally accomplished by filing documents full of nonsense legalese, often based on packages or lessons sold online.

Sovereigns sometimes say they are subject only to “God’s law” or to “common law,” meaning the U.S. legal system as they believe it existed before the conspiracy. They may declare themselves independent nations, join fictional American Indian tribes or attempt to create a replacement government within the sovereign community. Sovereigns believe official government documents with names in all capital letters refer to the strawman, which is why so many deny that they are the person named in court documents. The strawman theory also underlies sovereigns’ reliance on the Uniform Commercial Code, since they see most legal matters as financial transactions. Government employees are in on the scam, they say, which is why they don’t accept sovereign arguments and documents.

The SPLC says early sovereigns were generally white people with racist beliefs—for example, contending that Jews controlled the financial world or that African-Americans could not be sovereigns because their citizenship was granted by the 14th Amendment. Some still hold those beliefs. But in the 21st century, adherents are diverse and not necessarily racist.

“They’re spread over every [demographic]. It could be a 20-year-old black college student. It could be a 66-year-old woman,” says MacNab, who is writing a book about the movement. She says a lot of law enforcement officers “assume that if the person is not a [stereotypical] militia guy, they’re safe. … That’s not true anymore.”

Indeed, sovereigns now include a large contingent of African-Americans, sometimes drawn from black separatist or religious movements. Potok believes as many as half of all sovereigns could be African-American. In Hawaii, sovereign ideas have caught on among some Native Hawaiian activists. And the ideology, MacNab and Potok say, is spreading into other English-speaking countries.



Illustration by Adam McCauley

Part of the reason the ideology has spread is the availability of the Internet, MacNab says. Reports say sovereign ideas are also spread in prisons. Once involved, the SPLC says, new sovereigns are part of a large subculture with an active online community. They frequently learn more sovereign ideas—and the sham legalese they use in court—from websites or hotel seminars selling how-to kits for profit. These are also popular ways for sovereigns to sell bogus methods for fighting taxes, debt or foreclosures. The people peddling these ideas are sometimes prosecuted for fraud or tax evasion.

But, Potok says, “probably the most important driving factor of this particular ideology has been the economy.” He notes that the number of sovereigns has risen dramatically since 2008, when the economy started faltering. In addition to being used to fight foreclosure, sovereign ideas have been used to attempt to steal title to foreclosed properties. With widespread foreclosures and job losses, it’s not hard to see the appeal of an ideology that, as Potok says, “promises you something for nothing.”

Nevertheless, sovereign ideas can create real problems for the legal system. For one thing, even when sovereigns are genuinely trying to participate in a case, they’re often disruptive. Because they believe their own legal system is the only legitimate one—and because they frequently resent authorities they feel are not legitimate—they have trouble cooperating with even the most basic of requirements.

D. Loren Washburn, a former tax prosecutor in Utah, recalls a woman who was subpoenaed to testify in an investigation of her father for tax evasion. (Sovereigns have a lot of overlap with tax defiers, so tax prosecutors are familiar with the ideology.) She declined to answer questions, he says.

“We said, ‘Are you in any way related to him?’ ” recalls Washburn, now a shareholder at Clyde Snow & Sessions in Salt Lake City and a member of the ABA Section of Taxation’s Civil and Criminal Tax Penalties Subcommittee. “She said, ‘They say he’s my father, but there’s never been a paternity test.’ “

The woman was prosecuted for obstruction of justice, but when she got to court, she refused to admit she was the person named in the indictment. The judge jailed her for contempt of court, believing, Washburn says, that an afternoon in jail would convince her to comply. Instead, it took about three months.

“The judge was eager to let her out, but at the same time wasn’t eager to encourage or indulge in any way this crazy fiction of ‘I’m not that person because you spelled my name with [capital] letters,’ ” says Washburn. “And as a result, she stayed in jail for months and months, and she was the mother of five kids. … The calls from her father said, ‘Don’t let them bully you; you’d rather die in jail a martyr to the United States of America than give in to this tyranny.’ Then you’d hear a phone call from her husband saying, ‘Your father’s an idiot.’ “

He adds, “On a personal level, you see a lot of tragedy in it.”


Another form of disruption is the tendency among sovereigns to represent themselves, even when a public defender is available. Though the movement is full of legal gurus selling false ideas about the law for profit, there are few or no licensed attorneys in it. And because sovereigns believe that the government and its laws are illegitimate, they don’t value the help of an attorney.

But without a defense attorney as gatekeeper, no one stops sovereigns from proceeding under their version of the law. In the Cherron Phillips case, Phillips invoked the Uniform Commercial Code and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, saying she was representing the Cherron Phillips estate/trust as a creditor to the United States. She drew a distinction between the “United States of America” and the “United States.”

Ultimately, the judge revoked Phillips’ right to represent herself, saying he was concerned that her “obstructionist” behavior, if permitted in front of a jury, would quickly lead to a mistrial. He said Phillips consistently refused to produce documents that made sense, or defend her documents when pressed. After the case moved to the Southern District of Illinois, the new judge agreed to a competency evaluation. The trial has been tentatively scheduled for June 16.

A defense attorney for the woman in Washburn’s anecdote had also defended Brian David Mitchell, the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart from her family’s Salt Lake City home in 2002. Mitchell, charged with the kidnapping after Smart was found nine months later, was diagnosed with mental illness. Washburn says the attorney found the challenges of representing the two defendants very similar.

“The reality is: You have to have a lot of patience and work to create a practical sense in them of what the outcome is,” he says.

To make matters worse, these defendants aren’t generally interested in a plea bargain, says former tax prosecutor Bill Lovett, now managing partner at Collora in Boston.

“They’re waiting for their day in court so they can get up in front of a judge and a jury and make these arguments,” says Lovett, part of the Civil and Criminal Tax Penalties Subcommittee of the Taxation Section. “It takes up a higher percentage of the time to get the case done.”



Illustration by Adam McCauley

And then there’s the volume of their filings.

“I’ve seen sovereign citizens have to buy a new printer because there’s so much paperwork,” says Joseph Rillotta, a former tax prosecutor now with Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., and another member of the Taxation Section.

“These are people who are very fond of paperwork,” says Michelle Nijm, assistant general counsel in the office of the Illinois secretary of state. “Even in court these cases drag on. They file nonmeritorious motions,” which can be fought, “but it takes time and it’s expensive.”

Nijm cites a group of attorneys who were targeted by a frivolous UCC filing. After the filer included their Social Security numbers in a public filing, the attorneys had to ask the court to expunge that record. The attorney fees were $20,000.

MacNab says the volume of filings is a “huge problem”—not only because it clogs the courts, but also because fatigued officials sometimes drop the matter. And any small victory is taken as evidence that sovereigns’ extreme legal systems work.

She says the Florida dog license incident involving Donna Lee Wray stands out in her mind. “She refused to pay. They tried to fine her $25, and she hammered the court with paperwork, … something like 65 filings.”

“The county government just gave up, which is unfortunate because then she turned around and packaged her materials as ‘This is how you get out of taxes.’ “

Fraudulent liens are one area where the law often permits sovereigns to succeed. That’s because the UCC does not permit clerks to reject filings that are clearly bogus. Guided by online kits, sovereigns in many states are free to claim falsely that law enforcement officers, judges or others who upset them owe them millions of dollars.

According to a 2013 report from the National Association of Secretaries of State, bogus UCC filings have risen dramatically in the past few years, driven by a rise in people identified as sovereign citizens. Nor is there a requirement to notify the victim of the false lien.

“Typically, of course, you don’t find out about it until you get a job offer and you go to sell your house and find that you’re facing this gigantic lien,” says Potok of the SPLC. “Which, of course, you don’t really owe—but it takes thousands of dollars in lawyers to sort out the title and get that settled.”

Until fairly recently, the only real remedy was to go to court, with all of the attendant costs and delays. The NASS report says victims can file other statements to dispute the debt, but they can be missed in a creditor’s electronic records search.

That’s why states have begun passing laws to fight false liens. According to the NASS report, at least 17 states permit offices either to refuse to accept bogus filings or expunge them from the record after filing. At least seven states have a system for expedited judicial relief; at least 14 allow penalties in a civil lawsuit; and at least 10 make filing a false lien a crime. Many of these laws were passed within the last seven years. On the federal level, the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 made it illegal to file a false lien as retaliation against a federal employee.

North Carolina was one of the first states to address bogus filings, but Secretary of State Elaine Marshall says she would like to see more state laws designed to keep the burden of removing false liens off the victim. She also urges state officials to learn the signs that a filing is coming from a sovereign.

“There are very clear symbols that these [filings] are for some purposes other than the intent of the UCC,” she says. For example, she says, “when it’s $50 million and the debtor and the creditor are the same person. [Or] the way the punctuation and the way the spelling are, the addresses, the envelopes give them away, the color of ink, the red fingerprints.”

Detective Rob Finch of the Greensboro, N.C., police department agrees. He and fellow detective Kory Flowers were among the first law enforcement officers to research sovereign citizens, and they often write and lecture on how law enforcement can handle sovereigns safely.

“Awareness is quite frankly the best tool,” he says. “If you deal with a sovereign in your courtroom, be aware… [that you] need to run all [your] property and make sure there’s no festering lien that’s been sitting there for six months or a year.”



Illustration by Adam McCauley

Meritless lawsuits are another way sovereigns may retaliate. The suits are sometimes not even structured properly, MacNab says.

“Often they don’t name a defendant,” she says. “They try to frame it as a criminal lawsuit. [The cases] float around the federal court system.”

And sometimes, sovereigns file false tax forms against people who have upset them. This generally means filing a false Form 1099, which says they have paid the victim a large amount of nonwage money. When the IRS receives these, it expects the victim to pay taxes on that money—and when the return doesn’t match, it can trigger an investigation.

“In the case of a judge or a prosecutor, they’ll figure it out because generally the IRS is involved in the case to begin with,” says Lovett. “But it can do some damage to unwind it.”

A less common but very important concern is violence from sovereigns, particularly targeting law enforcement. A 2012 Anti-Defamation League report, The Lawless Ones, counts seven armed confrontations between sovereigns and law enforcement since 2010. It also notes threats or violence against judges, elected officials and even sovereigns’ own families.

MacNab says she believes violence may become more common as sovereigns realize they aren’t getting what they want.

“Most of the retaliation is in the form of liens—sometimes in the form of threats, and in very rare cases they act on the threats,” she says. “I think they’re moving in that direction, unfortunately. And if enough people threaten, some people will start acting on it.”

She cites the Alaska group led by political activist Cox, who has identified himself as a sovereign citizen. Cox was convicted in a fairly high-profile 2012 trial, along with some associates, of conspiracy to murder federal officials, solicitation of murder and multiple weapons charges. The charges were based partly on his “241” (“two for one”) plan—saying he would kidnap or kill two government officials for every one of his associates detained or killed by the government.

In part because of threats like these, some states have outlawed sham legal processes, false legal tribunals held out as genuine, and impersonation of court officials. Cox famously convened this kind of court in the back of a Denny’s restaurant in Fairbanks, acquitting himself of a real-world domestic violence charge. (In a genuine court, he ended the charges by pleading guilty to reckless endangerment.) More frighteningly, these courts have been used to convict and sentence government officials who have upset sovereigns.

“They will put the judge on criminal trial in absentia. And the penalty for treason is death,” says MacNab. “They’re always going to find you guilty.”


Illustration by Adam McCauley

Washburn says he’s never experienced actual violence, although “I guess I’ve been indicted by courts of sovereign citizens and threatened to be hung in a public square.” Once, he says, a “process server” for a sham sovereign court came to his parents’ house and to the home of the judge in the case.

MacNab says that while violence is a threat, a lot of sovereigns leave the movement rather than turn violent. This is not generally because they face the legal consequences of their actions, however. Like the father of the woman in Washburn’s anecdote, sovereigns may believe that being jailed is a sign that the conspiracy is real.

“They will go to prison and recruit everybody there,” MacNab says. “Look at someone like [notorious tax defier] Irwin Schiff. He’s been in and out of prison since the ’70s and nothing has awakened him.”

Washburn believes it’s tough to break through sovereign ideas because those ideas are held almost religiously.

“They end up being criminally prosecuted not so much because the [dollar] amount at issue is high, as because they antagonize the system repeatedly and thoroughly and almost refuse to be ignored,” he says.

“More than even a financial crime, they are taking a stand against what they view to be a corrupt system. It becomes almost as much a religious or philosophical stand as anything having to do with money.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Paper Terrorists: ‘Sovereign citizens’ plaster courts with bogus legal filings–and some turn to violence.”


Woman Dies after visiting Naturopathy Clinic

Archive: Belief and Risk, Homeopathy, Naturopathy


Police spent overnight Thursday guarding a Hintonburg naturopathic clinic after the death of a 51-year-old woman.

The Sun learned the woman died in hospital on Thursday, shortly after receiving some type of IV treatment at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre along Bayswater Ave.

Emergency crews were called to the centre at about 3 p.m. for a woman with trouble breathing.

Police had been guarding the centre since Thursday evening and into Friday morning, when it remained shut down.

It re-opened later.

Police said they were there at the request of the coroner, to guard the scene.

Major crime detectives had been consulted in connection with the incident.

Police released the scene around noon on Friday and said it appeared to not be a suspicious death for them to investigate.

Autopsy results are pending.

The centre bills itself as “the first integrative cancer care and research centre of its kind in Eastern Canada,” and offers “complementary support” alongside conventional treatment, such as naturopathic oncology and acupuncture.

Naturopathy is not regulated under the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, but they said similar legislation is in the process for it, under a different overseeing body.

The OICC employs regulated healthcare practicioners, according to their wesbite, and is a not-for-profit regional centre of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.

The OICC and the CCNM were not immediately available for comment.

John F Kennedy: 50th anniversary of a conspiracy theory

Written By Chris French (Guardian) (University of London, Anomalistic Research Unit)

At no point have more than 36% of Americans believed Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman. What is it about human psychology that makes conspiracy theories so appealing?

Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy, one of the most charismatic leaders of modern times, was gunned down by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas. Or was he? The majority of people in the US and many people around the world doubt the “official story” and instead believe that JFK was, in fact, the victim of a conspiracy involving members of the mob. Or the CIA. Or communists. Or extreme right-wingers. Or the military-industrial complex. The list goes on.

The idea that JFK was not the victim of a lone deranged gunman has been referred to as the “mother of all conspiracy theories” although some might argue that this accolade should nowadays go to the claim that 9/11 was an inside job. Although these two conspiracies are probably the most widely held, a wide variety of other conspiracy theories are also endorsed by large proportions of the population. These include the idea that Princess Diana was murdered, that the Americans never actually landed on the moon, that the HIV/Aids virus was deliberately manufactured with genocidal intent, and that the world is, in fact, ruled by giant shape-shifting lizards. What is it about conspiracy theories that makes them so attractive to so many people? And why is it that some people are more drawn to such theories than others?

One possibility, of course, is that all of the above conspiracy theories are true and based upon a cool and rational analysis of available evidence. The only reason that some people do not believe in them might be because they have not looked at the evidence and instead, like mindless sheep, have simply accepted the lies of the establishment.

This seems highly unlikely. For one thing, in this internet age with instant access to rolling news, conspiracy theories arise almost instantly after any major event, often far too quickly for any evidence to have been properly gathered and analysed regarding the real cause of the event in question. Secondly, studies have shown that some people will, upon first encountering them, endorse entirely fictional conspiracies dreamt up by researchers with no supporting evidence whatsoever. Finally, those with a strong inclination towards conspiratorial thinking will even endorse mutually contradictory conspiracy theories. Thus, those who believe that Princess Diana was murdered by the British secret service are also more likely to believe that she faked her own death; those who believe that Osama bin Laden was in fact already dead at the time that the Americans claim to have killed him are also more likely to believe that he is still alive. The explanation is, of course, that those with a conspiratorial mindset are not exactly sure what really happened with respect to these dramatic events. The only thing they are sure of is that the “official story” is not true.

Surprisingly, with a few notable exceptions, it is only recently that psychologists have turned their attention towards this fascinating topic but there are signs this has changed in recent years, with an increasing number of relevant publications and publication of special issues of journals and blogs devoted exclusively to this topic. Some interesting findings have already emerged.

For example, it appears that one of the underlying cognitive factors that inclines us towards belief in conspiracy theories is our intuitive notion that big events must have big causes. This has been referred to as the proportionality bias. Thus we find it hard to accept that JFK was the victim of a lone deranged gunman or that Princess Diana was the victim of a drunk driver. We prefer the idea that such major events must have major causes – such as complex conspiracies by groups of powerful individuals.

Other research has pointed to the relevance of the psychological mechanism of projection. It appears that some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracies than others because those people would themselves feel inclined to engage in conspiracies in similar contexts. The reasoning goes like this: “If I were in that situation, I would probably engage in conspiratorial behaviour. That implies that most people would do likewise. Therefore, this conspiracy probably really did take place.”

Another factor that plays an important role is confirmation bias, probably the most ubiquitous cognitive bias of them all. We all have a tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what we already believe or want to be true and to ignore, neglect or dismiss evidence that contradicts of favoured beliefs. Inone study, participants were presented with information relating to the JFK assassination. Some of the information was more consistent with the lone gunman explanation, some was more consistent with the conspiracy-based explanation. All participants found the information that was consistent with their pre-existing views more convincing than information that was inconsistent with those views. Thus the presentation of the same information had a polarising effect: those who already believed in the conspiracy theory believed in it even more strongly; those who already rejected the conspiracy theory, rejected it even more strongly.

In real life, information about major events is often complex and includes errors and anomalies, meaning that such contradictory interpretations are all too easy. One of our greatest strengths as a species is our ability to find patterns and connections in complex data and to perceive cause and effect relationships between events. The problem is that we sometimes see patterns when they are not really there and deduce cause and effect relationships where they do not exist.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those who believe strongly in conspiracies tend to show higher levels of anomie and paranoia. It is not just that they do not trust governments and official institutions. They are also less likely to trust their next-door neighbours and their colleagues at work. They tend to feel powerless, the victims of uncontrollable external forces, and it is arguably the case that belief in conspiracies gives them at least the illusion of control. Identifying at out-group as the cause of one’s misfortune – be it the government, the CIA, the Illuminati or whatever – means there is at least the possibility that this enemy can be defeated. It is also undeniably satisfying to believe that one is in possession of secret knowledge about the way things really are that others are either too stupid or ignorant to believe.

It should be noted that none of the psychologists engaged in this line of research would for one minute maintain that all conspiracy theories are false. A tiny minority of such theories do turn out to be true. The focus of this research is not upon whether any specific conspiracy theory is true or false but instead upon trying to understand the factors that make such theories so easy to believe for so many people. A second focus is upon why some people are more drawn to belief in conspiracies, even entirely fictional or mutually contradictory ones, than others.

In the final analysis though, does belief in conspiracy theories do any real damage? Isn’t it the case that such beliefs are just a bit of harmless fun? Although that may be true of belief in most conspiracy theories, the evidence shows conclusively that belief in conspiracies can cause serious harm. For example, it is estimated that unfounded conspiracy-based beliefs in the alleged dangers of treatment for Aids has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. It has also been shown that terrorist groups use conspiracy theories to recruit and motivate their followers. Finally, belief in conspiracy theories is associated with disengagement from democratic processes making believers less likely to vote, for example.

In a democracy, it is essential that citizens examine and question the official version of events if we are to hold our leaders to account when it is appropriate to do so. But proper scepticism does not entail the rejection of all official versions of events but careful rational analysis using critical thinking skills to maximum effect. The assumption that all information from official sources is untrue is a dangerous road to go down.

Chris French is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. On Twitter he is @chriscfrench

House Stenographer Dragged Off Floor Yelling About Freemasons And God

Written by Taylor Berman (Gawker)

As the House finished their vote to reopen the federal government and raise the debt ceiling, a House stenographer decided it was a good time to let everyone know her feelings about God, Congress, and the Freemasons.

“He [God] will not be mocked,” the stenographer, apparently named Molly, yelled into the microphone as she was dragged off by security. “The greatest deception here is that this is not one nation under God. It never was. It would not have been. The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God. Praise be to Jesus.”



UPDATE: The stenographer, identified as Dianne Reidy, was interviewed by Capitol police after the incident, according to Fox News.

Belief in biblical end-times stifling climate change action in U.S.: study suggests

By Eric W. Dolan (Raw Story)

The United States has failed to take action to mitigate climate change thanks in part to the large number of religious Americans who believe the world has a set expiration date.

Research by David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado uncovered that belief in the biblical end-times was a motivating factor behind resistance to curbing climate change.

“[T]he fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them,” Barker and Bearce wrote in their study, which will be published in the June issue of Political Science Quarterly.

The study, based on data from the 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, uncovered that belief in the “Second Coming” of Jesus reduced the probability of strongly supporting government action on climate change by 12 percent when controlling for a number of demographic and cultural factors. When the effects of party affiliation, political ideology, and media distrust were removed from the analysis, the belief in the “Second Coming” increased this effect by almost 20 percent. (This suggests there is a significant overlap between those three variables and belief in the “Second Coming.”)

“[I]t stands to reason that most nonbelievers would support preserving the Earth for future generations, but that end-times believers would rationally perceive such efforts to be ultimately futile, and hence ill-advised,” Barker and Bearce explained.

That very sentiment has been expressed by federal legislators. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) said in 2010 that he opposed action on climate change because “the Earth will end only when God declares it to be over.” He is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

Though the two researchers cautioned their study was not intended to predict future policy outcomes, they said their study suggested it was unlikely the United States would take action on climate change while so many Americans, particularly Republicans, believed in the coming end-times.

“That is, because of institutions such as the Electoral College, the winner-take-all representation mechanism, and the Senate filibuster, as well as the geographic distribution of partisanship to modern partisan polarization, minority interests often successfully block majority preferences,” Barker and Bearce wrote. “Thus, even if the median voter supports policies designed to slow global warming, legislation to effect such change could find itself dead on arrival if the median Republican voter strongly resists public policy environmentalism at least in part because of end-times beliefs.”

The Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Argument (OPCA) Litigant Case

Case Commented on: Meads v Meads, 2012 ABQB 571

(source and pdf version: here)


This decision by Associate Chief Justice John D. Rooke was the subject of much media attention when it was released. That attention was well deserved. The lengthy and well-researched decision fills a gap in the jurisprudence and scholarship on vexatious litigants by shining a spotlight on and systematically examining a category of litigants for whom Justice Rooke coined the collective term “Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Argument” (OPCA) litigants. These litigants are distinguishable from the more usual types of vexatious litigants because they use a collection of techniques and arguments sold by people Justice Rooke called “gurus.”  His decision is valuable for several reasons: it collects all of the reported Canadian decisions dealing with OPCA litigants, it describes the indicia by which OPCA litigants can be recognized, it describes the concepts they have relied upon and the arguments they have made and why those arguments have all failed in every Canadian court, and it discusses what judges, lawyers, and litigants can do when faced with OPCA litigants.

In this post I will summarize Justice Rooke’s 736 paragraph, 156 page decision (plus two appendices). Hopefully the summary will be useful to those who do not want to read the entire decision. Those already familiar with the contents of the decision or interested only in commentary should skip past the summary and to the comments section. I have not attempted to comment on each aspect of the lengthy decision but instead chosen to focus on three issues.

1) First, the lack of research into and scholarship on the OPCA phenomenon seems to be a real problem. Why is a superior court judgment the first systematic treatment of the subject, the first to describe the present state of the law?

2) It appears that family law is one of the contexts in which OPCA litigants can frequently, perhaps even disproportionately, be found. Even if their presence there is not disproportionate, are there factors in the family law context that suggest different responses are needed?

3) Justice Rooke indicates that OPCA litigants are very different from ordinary vexatious litigants. However, I wonder just how different some of them are. To what extent are some OPCA litigants —perhaps not those who have found their way into reported cases — merely desperate litigants who have conducted Internet searches looking for information helpful to their cases and who have seized on this OPCA material?

A.        Summary of the Decision

These matters came before Justice Rooke on an application by the wife’s lawyer for the appointment of a case management judge in a divorce and matrimonial property action commenced by Mrs. Meads. After a hearing on June 8, Justice Rooke granted that application and appointed himself as the Case Management Justice. His written reasons were motivated by the materials filed or submitted by Mr. Meads, his arguments during and after the hearing, his conduct in court, and his litigation strategies. Based on the hearing and materials, Justice Rooke determined that Mr. Meads was an OPCA litigant.

Between the parties, Justice Rooke’s reasons set the stage for ongoing case management. He addresses the issues raised by Mr. Meads to prevent the OPCA aspects of the litigation from hindering a resolution of the couple’s divorce and matrimonial property actions.

But Justice Rooke’s reasons are written for more than the two parties and their particular dispute. Justice Rooke takes advantage of the fact the Mr. Meads provided an assortment of OPCA documents, concepts, materials, and strategies and enabled him to review the law concerning OPCA concepts and strategies and the law’s responses to them. In doing so, Justice Rooke draws on his experience as the senior administrative judicial official of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton. He also reviews what appears to be all the reported Canadian case law that comments on OPCA litigants, OPCA gurus, and their misconduct, while noting the reported case law is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg because most encounters between the courts and OPCA litigants are not reported.

Because Justice Rooke’s decision is intended as a resource, I will briefly outline the parts of his reasons that apply to OPCA litigants and litigation in general: 1) his detailed review of the OPCA community, its membership, organization, and history (at paras 74-198); (2) his identification of the unusual and stereotypic motifs that characterize OPCA litigation and litigants (at paras 199-263); (3) his survey of the Canadian case law that reports and rejects OPCA strategies and concepts (at paras 264-621); and (4) his suggestions for how judges, lawyers, and litigants might respond to litigants who advance OPCA concepts (at paras 622-675 and at various other places in the judgment).  My paragraph references refer to the version of the judgment posted on the Alberta Courts’ website (linked here), which sequentially numbers its paragraphs and has a detailed Table of Contents with hyperlinks to the corresponding paragraphs in the reasons.

1) The OPCA Phenomenon (at paras 74-198)

In his review of the OPCA community, its membership, organization, and history, Justice Rooke begins by noting (at paras 68, 82) that members in the OPCA community are “surprisingly unified by their methodology and objectives,” albeit otherwise diverse, from all occupations and from across the political spectrum.  Members have highly conspiratorial perspectives, although they differ about who is a part of such conspiracies. They also believe that ordinary people have been unfairly cheated of or deceived about their rights. Justice Rooke identifies (at para 69) this belief that the ordinary people have been abused and cheated by some conspiracy as the basis for OPCA members “perceived right to break ‘the system’ and retaliate against ‘their oppressors’.”

OPCA litigation is apparently a money-making proposition, as explained by Justice Rooke (at para 73).  The community of individuals he labels “gurus” promote and sell a commercial product in seminars, books, websites, instructional DVDs and other recordings. As Justice Rooke stresses repeatedly (e.g., at paras 77, 96), the audience for this commercial activity is the client, the potential OPCA litigant, who will be paying for and using the product.  Why would people pay for this product? These gurus proclaim they know secret principles and law, hidden from the public but binding on the state, courts, and individuals. Apparently gurus claim that if you use their techniques, you will not have to pay tax or child and spousal support payments; you need not pay attention to traffic laws and will only subject to criminal sanction if you agree to be; you will be able to access secret bank accounts and turn bills into cheques; etc. Justice Rooke characterizes these claims (at paras 75, 77) as “pseudolegal nonsense,” “contemptibly stupid,” “bluntly idiotic substance,” and “byzantine schemes which more closely resemble the plot of a dark fantasy novel than anything else.”

Justice Rooke names (at paras 85-145) six Canadian OPCA gurus, i.e. those people who are the source of new OPCA concepts or the venue for recirculating used ones.  In his descriptions of these gurus he valuably lists all of the court cases involving each guru and their known followers, including their convictions on criminal charges, orders declaring them to be vexatious litigants, and cost awards against them in the tens of thousands of dollars.

In one section of his reasons (at paras 168-196) that has caught the eye of the media, Justice Rooke provides taxonomy of subsets of the OPCA community that he calls “movements.”  Here he introduces us to the “Detoxes,” the first OPCA movement to appear in Canada, focussed on avoiding income tax obligations; the “Freemen-on-the-Land,” a newer Canadian innovation that is anti-government,  libertarian and right wing; the Sovereign Man / Sovereign Citizen movement, the main American OPCA community (in)famous for its members’ violent conduct and “paper terrorism,”  the Church of the Ecumenical Redemption International, an Edmonton area “pot church” claiming that marijuana is lynchpin of the Christian religion; and the Moorish Law movement, claiming that black Muslims who self-identify as “Moors” are not subject to state or court authority because they are governed by their own law or because they are the original inhabitants of North and South America.

2) Indicia of OPCA Litigants, Litigation, and Strategies (at paras 199-253)

In this important part of his decision, Justice Rooke canvases the motifs found in the written materials and in-court arguments of OPCA litigants. One of his reasons for producing this comprehensive but still incomplete catalogue of indicia is that they are what distinguishes the OPCA litigant from other self-represented litigants.  Justice Rooke notes (at para 199) “the vast majority of these indicia are almost never shared by other self-represented litigants, including those who may have difficulty communicating their positions and arguments, and by litigants who are affected by cognitive and psychological dysfunction.”

Justice Rooke offers the following catalogue of OPCA indicia, complete with cases that discuss them, as elements that suggest a closer review and specific court procedures may be warranted. He adds (at para 255) that a typical OPCA litigant’s submission will incorporate many of these indicia.

A. On documents:

1. The use of highly stereotypic formats for litigants’ names, such as:

  • the addition of atypical punctuation, usually colons and dashes;
  • the addition of a clan, family or house (: : : dennis-larry: : of the meads-family: : : .);
  • the use of two names, one with only upper case letters and the second with only lower case or a mixture of cases.

2. Markings and formalities, such as:

  • a thumbprint;
  • more than one signature and in unusual colours;
  • postage stamps;
  • unnecessary notarization;
  • A4V or “accept(ed) for value” stamped at a 45 degree angle.

3. The use of specific phrases and language, such as:

  • the litigant as a “flesh and blood man,” a “freeman-on-the-land” or “freeman”, a “free will full liability person,” a “sovereign man,” “sovereign citizen” or “sovran”;
  • the litigant as a person or not a person, an ambassador, a postmaster general, a member of a fictitious Aboriginal group, or a “private neutral non-belligerent”;
  • the litigant as only subject to a category of law, typically “natural law,” “common law” or “God’s Law”;
  • identification of municipality, province, or Canada as a corporation
  • identification of the court as an admiralty or military court;
  • a demand for payment only in precious metals.

4. The use of obsolete, foreign or otherwise irrelevant legislation and legal documents, such as:

  • the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.) of the United States of America;
  • the American Constitution;
  • UNIDROIT and UNCITRAL guidelines;
  • the 1948 Income Tax Act;
  • legislation governing oaths;
  • the Canadian Bill of Rights;
  • an out-of-date version of the American Black’s Legal Dictionary.

5. Atypical mailing addresses, such as:

  • omission or variation of the postal code;
  • fictitious nation states.

B. In court conduct

1. Demands, such as:

  • to see the oath of office of a judge, lawyer, or court official;
  • to see the ‘bond information’ of a lawyer;
  • that the Crown provide proof that it has authority to proceed;
  • that the court state whether it is addressing the litigant in one of two roles.

2. Documents presented without prior service or warning, such as:

  • documents that make the court a fiduciary, agent, or impose a contract on the judge or court official;
  • a ‘fee schedule’.

3. Peculiar comments that relate to names and identification, such as:

  • stating they are an agent or representative of an entity such as a ‘person’ of the litigant’s name, a ‘legal fiction’ or ‘fictitious corporation’ with the litigant’s name, an estate named after the litigant, etc.;
  • claiming copyright or trade-mark in their own name.

4. Denials of court authority or jurisdiction, such as:

  • a direct denial that the court has authority over the litigant;
  • identification of some physical elements of the courtroom that supposedly indicates the court is a military or admiralty court;
  • a declaration that the litigant’s presence or participation is “under duress.”

5. Other in-Court motifs, such as:

  • asking if the court is trying court to create a contract with the litigant;
  • refusing to enter or premature leaving a courtroom;
  • ritual responses such as “I accept that for value and honour,” “You are intimidating me” and “You are enticing me into slavery.

3) OPCA Concepts and Arguments in Canadian Case Law (at paras 264-621)

Justice Rooke begins this section (at para 264-65) by noting that there are only a limited number of OPCA concepts, with old schemes often recycled using different terminology.  He then describes (at paras 267-550) a number of implausible concepts that are common to OPCA litigants, including:

A. The litigant is not subject to court authority, an idea with three variations (at paras 267-350):

1. The jurisdiction of the court is restricted to certain specific domains, because the court is an admiralty court or a military court, or because its jurisdiction is less than that of a notary public, or because religious authority trumps the court’s jurisdiction.

2. The authority of the court is eliminated due to some defect, such as the lack of a judicial robe or the “wrong” version of the Bible in the courtroom or a supposed defect in the 1931 Statute of Westminster.

3. An OPCA litigant is immunized from the court’s actions, an idea with three main categories:

(a) No legal obligation can be enforced on the OPCA litigant without his or her agreement, an argument with a variety of odd reasons advanced: e.g.

  • because they belong to an exempt group, such as that of “a sovereign, flesh and blood living man” or that of citizens of citizens of “Texas, an independent nation-state” or that of a fictitious Aboriginal group;
  • because they unilaterally declare themselves immune (especially from income tax liability) because they are a “Freeman-on-the-Land” or “sovereign citizen”;
  • because they are subject to a different law, such as a medieval, judge-made “common law” that trumps and excludes legislation or the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) of the United States or the law of the American Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd edition;
  • because they are a conscientious objector or “tax protester.”

(b) A person has two legal aspects or can be split into two legal entities, as evidenced by the structure of the name or its upper- or lower-case letters, and the wrong aspect is identified in the court documents, and

(c) An OPCA litigant can unilaterally bind the state, a state actor, a court, or other persons with a ‘foisted’ agreement.

Justice Rooke also includes (at paras 351-738 ) a description of the inherent authority of provincial superior courts in order to explain why OPCA litigants are subject to their jurisdiction.  He discusses inherent jurisdiction, procedural jurisdiction, and subject jurisdiction and how and why the jurisdiction of Canada’s superior courts defeats OPCA strategies.

B. Obligation Requires Agreement (at paras 379-416)

The idea that all legally enforceable rights require that a person agree to be subject to those obligations takes two forms:

1. the argument that every binding legal obligation, including those between state actors, emerges from a contract, an argument that denies the authority of legislatures to impose unilateral obligations;

2. the argument that consent is required before an obligation can be enforced so that a person is immune if they simply say they have not consented to be subject to the law and the courts or if the contract is a “foisted” agreement or if they indicate their non-consent with a mantra such as “I accept that for value and consideration and honour.”

C. Double/Split Persons (at paras 417-46)

Another common OPCA concept is that an individual can exist in two separate but related states, a concept expressed in many different ways. The “physical person” aspect is often described with a “dash colon” or “family/clan/house of” motif. The other aspect is a non-corporeal aspect such as a “straw man,” a “corporation,” a “corporate fiction,” a “dead corporation,” a “dead person,” an “estate,” a “legal person,” a “legal fiction,” an “artificial entity,” a “procedural phantom,” a “slave name,” or a “juristic person.”  Some gurus see the non-corporeal aspect as state-created; others claim only it can be affected by the state.  Some assert that these two linked imaginary personalities can interact with one another and create trust relationships and contracts.

D. Unilateral Agreements (at paras 447-528)

Some OPCA litigants attempt to “unilaterally foist obligations on other litigants, peace officers, state actors, or the court and court personnel” (at para 447).  Justice Rooke lists common examples of these agreements: some purport to appoint someone a fiduciary; some establish a contractual relationship or declare an OPCA person no longer has an obligation, such as to pay income tax; some purport to unilaterally settle lawsuits or legal claims, without court direction; and some provide a system of predetermined fines. This strategy is almost always expressed in documentary form, often with dramatic language and warnings.  OPCA gurus appear to have a large role in creating these documents, which are often mailed to court or government officials or emailed to large numbers of people.

Foisted unilateral agreements are used by OPCA litigants in a variety of ways, such as:

  • to claim the failure to refuse or refute the “agreement” ? often a “fee schedule” targeting court and government actors, especially peace officers, and claiming disproportionate penalties – creates an obligation;
  • to resist a foreclosure;
  • to register a lien or interest against property held by the agreement’s target;
  • to transfer or assign some kind of obligations to someone else;
  • to claim copyright and/or trade-mark of their own name – apparently use of any of Mr. Mead’s protected names is supposed to cost “the sum certain amount of $100,000,000.00 per each occurrence” if you receive a document with the heading “NOTICE BY DECLARATION and AFFIDAVIT OF CONSEQUENCES FOR INFRINGEMENT OF COPYRIGHT TRADE-NAME/ TRADEMARK.  And same are accepted for value and exempt from levy”, a document reproduced in full in Appendix B to Justice Rooke’s decision.

E. Money for Nothing Schemes (at paras 529-50)

A limited number of “money for nothing” schemes pretend to provide a mechanism by which the OPCA litigant can obtain unconventional benefits.

1. Accept for Value / A4V: The gurus who promote the most common “money for nothing” scheme claim that each person is associated with a secret government bank account which contains millions of dollars. The bank account’s number is usually a number assigned by the state, such as a Social Insurance Number. If you have the correct combination of government documents – the “unlocking spell” – you can access your secret bank account. Or if an A4V litigant writes or stamps the correct notation on a bill or court order, that “unlocking spell” transforms it into a cheque drawn from the secret account.

2. Bill Consumer Purchases: In this “money for nothing” scheme, the OPCA litigants claim that documents called “Bill-Consumer Purchases” would discharge a debt. This scheme appears to be based on a distorted view of the “consumer bills and notes” component of the Bills of Exchange Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. B-4.

3. Miscellaneous Money for Nothing Schemes: Claims have been made that only physical cash or “hard currency” has value and therefore a loan that was a result of a cheque or electronic transaction did not have to be repaid.

After an exhaustive review of the large number of Canadian cases dealing with these and other OPCA concepts, together with detailed description of how each failed in the courts and the statutes and case law which rebut each, Justice Rooke concludes that the concepts put forward by OPCA litigants have never gained purchase in a Canadian court. Provincial and federal courts of appeal have upheld every trial decision that rejected OPCA concepts and the Supreme Court of Canada has denied leave to appeal in at least nine of these cases.

In “Legal Effect and Character of OPCA Arguments” (at paras 551-585), Justice Rooke summarizes why none of these schemes or arguments have ever succeeded in a Canadian court:

  • an OPCA argument that denies court authority cannot succeed due to the court’s inherent authority;
  • an OPCA argument that denies court authority is intrinsically frivolous and vexatious;
  • an OPCA argument that denies court authority may be contempt of court authority
    • denial of tax obligation evades tax;
    • denial of firearms restrictions proves intent for illegal possession;
    • denial of court authority may prove the intent to engage in contempt of court.

4) Responses to OPCA Strategies, Litigants and Gurus (at paras 256-63, 586-621)

In several different places in his decision Justice Rooke identifies the variety and range of responses to OPCA litigants and litigation that Canadian courts have adopted. He encourages (at para 586) “[a]ny judge who faces OPCA litigation [to] consider deployment of all tools in this arsenal, and others that may be developed for this difficult litigant category.”

Justice Rooke offers suggestions for procedural responses by court clerks and judges to suspected OPCA documents and conduct (at paras 256-263).  For court staff, he recommends they reject documents that do not conform to established requirements; mark non-compliant materials as “received” rather than “filed”; and forward materials with OPCA characteristics to a judge for review before filing.

In the courtroom, he notes (at para 261) that additional in-court security is usually warranted, including searches for and removal of prohibited electronic recording equipment and, in the event of supporters disrupting proceedings or posing physical threats, the closing of the courtroom to the public.

He identifies seven different types of civil responses to OPCA strategies that have been used by the courts in this section of his judgment (Part VI), which I have combined with his ideas in a later section (Part VII) about other possible courses of action:

A. Judicial Responses

1) Strike Actions, Motions, and Defences (at paras 587-90):

Proceedings are struck based on incomprehensible arguments and allegations and actions and defences are struck based on the court’s inherent jurisdiction to control its own process and prevent abuse.

2) Punitive Damages (at paras 591-93)

Where specifically sought by the party opposing an OPCA litigant, punitive damages may be appropriate for pre-trial misconduct. For example, liens filed on the basis of a foisted unilateral agreement, an OPCA scheme already identified by the courts and dismissed as ineffective, should attract punitive damages.

3) Elevated Costs (at paras 594-600)

OPCA litigation has historically led to elevated cost awards and Justice Rooke provides (at para 597) a list of criteria for such an award which includes:

  • ‘reprehensible, scandalous or outrageous’ conduct by a litigant;
  • proceedings based on groundless allegations;
  • doing something to hinder, delay or confuse the litigation;
  • attempting to deceive the court and defeat justice;
  • the need to deter similar conduct by other OPCA litigants.

Courts have made gurus liable for costs where a guru participates and instigates OPCA litigation. Justice Rooke insists that “innocent parties must be indemnified for the legal costs associated with OPCA litigation” (at para 631).

4) Security for Costs Orders (at paras 601-02)

Orders for security for costs are available if the target of the OPCA strategy applies for payment into court of security for costs, especially if the OPCA litigants states he or she stands outside the authority of the court.

5) Fines (at paras 603-607)

The Alberta Rules of Court allow a judge to order “a party, lawyer or other person” to pay the court clerk a penalty where a person fails to comply with the rules or a practice note or direction of the Court without adequate excuse, and the contravention or failure to comply, in the Court’s opinion, has interfered with or may interfere with the proper or efficient administration of justice. As Justice Rooke notes (at para 606) “[p]ractically any OPCA document fails to comply with the formal and content requirements of the Rules.”  The ability to fine “other persons” makes this a flexible tool.

6) One Judge Remaining on a File (at paras 608-11)

Justice Rooke argues that it makes sense that a single judge should usually supervise an ongoing court proceeding in which OPCA activities have emerged because OPCA litigation is often associated with complex and unorthodox court documentation and litigation procedures and a difficult history, both inside and outside the courtroom, so that significant time and effort is required to become familiar with the materials and events and because many OPCA litigants – particularly those who are attempting to apply ‘everything is a contract’ and ‘dual/split person’ schemes – are potentially very uncooperative. A judge can seize themselves of the matter, or be assigned as a case management judge.

7) Vexatious Litigant Status (at paras 612-13)

The vexatious character of OPCA litigation may be a basis for an application for an order restricting a litigant’s freedom to initiate or continue an action.  Vexatious litigant declarations have been reported against two Canadian OPCA gurus, as well as numerous OPCA litigants. This is a limited remedy even in the context of litigation in the courts because vexatious litigants are still allowed to bring (repeated) motions for leave to commence or continue actions.

8) Deny Status as a Representative (at paras 614-18)

Representation by gurus as agents or other representatives is often prohibited by legal profession legislation.  Even when it is not, the courts have quickly denied representative status to those who claimed not to be subject to the rule of law or who had demonstrated an intention not to be bound by the rules of court. Some movement members have been found to be so ineffectual and incompetent that they have been denied agent status on that basis. Court decisions have been based on more than in-court conduct; out-of-court statements, such as webpages, have been used to evaluate whether a person was an appropriate agent for a party.

9) Segregate OPCA issues and proceedings (para 631)

Justice Rooke believes that “a key element of an appropriate and successful response to OPCA litigation” is that proceedings specific to OPCA litigants – such as judicial review of suspect documents, show cause hearings, court security procedures, contempt, security for costs, elevated costs and damages, and declaration of vexatious litigant status – be segregated, where possible, to minimize their effect on the innocent other parties involved.

10) A “show cause” hearing (at para 632)

Justice Rooke identifies a ‘show cause’ hearing — where the OPCA litigant is invited to demonstrate that he or she has a case — as a potentially appropriate tool for identifying genuine arguments masked by OPCA litigation.

11) Explanations of court costs and the court’s contempt authority (at para 637-38)

In Justice Rooke’s experience, OPCA gurus do not educate their customers about court cost awards and OPCA litigants often seem to believe there are no potential negative consequences to their using OPCA strategies.

12) Reject OPCA materials as irrelevant (at para 640)

Many OPCA documents are only relevant for costs awards, vexatious litigation and litigant status, contempt, and criminal offences and should be rejected for other purposes.

B. Lawyers

1) Refuse to notarize OPCA documents (at paras 643-45)

Alberta Justice has instructed lay notaries to not endorse documents of this kind (Papadopoulos v Borg, 2009 ABCA 201 at para 3) and the court has made it clear to the Law Society of Alberta that this kind of action is inappropriate for an officer of the court.

2) Triage: Identification of legal issues (at paras 646-47)

A lawyer has a duty “… to identify the real issues in dispute and facilitate the quickest means of resolving the claim at the least expense” (Rule 1.2(3)(a)).  Lawyers for targeted litigants can assist judges in understanding what real legal issues are buried in the mass of documents usually filed by OPCA litigants.

3) Education of judges (at paras 648-55)

In parts of Alberta and Canada with less exposure to OPCA litigants, their concepts, and in-court (mis)conduct, lawyers may find it useful to provide some background and evidence to a judge, with Justice Rooke’s reasons serving as a useful starting point.  Justice Rooke encourages lawyers to research relevant case law and submit background evidence on OPCA litigation and concepts that explains the particular strategies advanced in a specific dispute. He identifies (at para 650) the following information in particular, some easily obtainable because OPCA litigants often post in online forums run by OPCA gurus:

  • OPCA motifs, such as those identified in his decision;
  • materials from the OPCA litigant that the court has not received;
  • information about the OPCA litigant’s guru or host movement;
  • expert evidence of persons familiar with OPCA fingerprints, concepts, schemes, and gurus;
  • communications by the litigant within the OPCA community, and
  • known security risks of a relevant OPCA movement.

4) Education of OPCA litigants (at paras 656-57)

Justice Rooke encourages lawyers representing targeted litigants to try to inform an opposing OPCA litigant about court costs awards and provide them with cases that directly relate to arguments the OPCA litigant is trying to advance.

5) Applications to strike (at para 659)

If the action does not disclose a reasonable cause of action or a defence does not disclose a defense known to law, apply to strike the claim or defence. Lawyers should also apply to strike irrelevant submissions and pleadings and to categorize documents as irrelevant except for the purpose of costs.

6) Pursue punitive damages and elevated cost awards (at para 660)

The vexatious and abusive character of OPCA concepts meets the criteria for awarding punitive damages and elevated cost awards, including solicitor-and-own-client costs, and lawyers should pursue these awards to minimize the harm to their clients.

7) Other responses

Justice Rooke’s list of possible court responses suggest a few other useful actions that lawyers can take:

  • apply for payment into court of security for costs, especially if the OPCA; litigant or guru denies the authority or jurisdiction of the court
  • apply for a case management judge as soon as possible;
  • bring any physical threats to the court’s attention.

C. ‘Target’ Litigants (at para 622)

Justice Rooke confirms that most of the responses open to targeted litigants` lawyers are also open to targeted litigants and they should pursue the same remedies.

D. OPCA Litigants (at paras 663-68)

Justice Rooke explicitly directs some comments towards OPCA litigants.  He asks that they familiarize themselves with:

  • the explanations he has provided for why every OPCA concept and scheme of which the Court is aware is invalid;
  • the concept of court cost awards;
  • the fact that compliance with existing court orders avoids a finding of contempt of court;
  • the fact that payment of outstanding income tax avoids significant late payment penalties and interest due for unpaid amounts;
  • questions to ask of the gurus who are giving them advice, such as:
    • why the guru has little, if any, wealth, when he says he hold the keys to untold riches;
    • whether the guru can identify even one reported court decision where their techniques proved successful;
    • how their ideas differ from those rejected in Justice Rooke’s decision.

E. OPCA Gurus (at paras 669-75)

It is in writing directly to the OPCA gurus that Justice Rooke is most scathing (and literary). He likens them to the “evil counsellors” and “the falsifiers” in the Inferno by Dante at Cantos 26-30. He also quotes William S. Burroughs advice to hustlers in theNaked Lunch: “Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat: The Mark Inside.” Justice Rooke also warns gurus of the harm they cause, whether they believe what they are selling is lies or the truth.


There is much that could and should be said about the content of Justice Rooke’s decision. In this post, however, I raise only three preliminary points, primarily for the purpose of raising more questions about the OPCA phenomenon.

1) More research and scholarship is needed on OPCA litigation

As I noted in my opening paragraph, Justice Rooke’s well-researched decision fills a gap in the scholarship on vexatious litigants by introducing the category of litigants he calls “Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Argument” litigants and analyzing the phenomenon systematically.  After noting (at para 653) that the OPCA community seems to have attracted very little academic and legal commentary, Justice Rooke goes on to identify (at para 654-55) several helpful American sources.  Apparently the IRS maintains a detailed index of “frivolous tax arguments” and American lawyer Daniel B. Evans maintained “The Tax Protestor FAQ” until February 2011, and it is still a comprehensive index of American OPCA concepts and gurus. Justice Rooke also mentions two web forums — the “James Randi Educational Foundation” and “Quatloos!  Cyber Museum of Scams & Frauds” — as including challenges to and debates with OPCA gurus.

The only academic scholarship on the OPCA type of litigant that I have been able to locate is an article by Dr. Judy Lattas, a professor in the Department of Sociology, Macquarie University, on “Queer Sovereignty: The Gay & Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands” (2009) 1:1 Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal 128. She describes a micro-nationalist or sovereignty-claiming Gay & Lesbian Kingdom which seceded from Australia in 2004 when Emperor Dale Parker Anderson declared independence upon raising the rainbow pride flag on the Coral Sea Island of Cato. Dr. Lattas states (at para 129) that micro-nationalists are predominantly featured among those vexatious litigants “whose obdurate presence in the courtroom and the corridor threatens to jam up the system, making it unmanageable” and she analyzes the secessionist move as a technique — an ironically sovereignty-betraying technique — for remaining in dispute with government authorities.

There is a small but growing body of academic and legal commentary on the more usual types of vexatious litigants, but it does not discuss the OPCA or the indicia and concepts identified by Justice Rooke. There are two otherwise comprehensive law reform reports.The April 2006 Final Report on Vexatious Litigants by the Law Reform Commission of Nova Scotia is the most recent and comprehensive account of the problem of vexatious litigants in Canada but makes no mention of the OPCA type. Another comprehensive and recent review was undertaken in Australia by the Parliament of Victoria and their Law Reform Committee issued their report, “Inquiry into Vexatious Litigants,” in December 2008, but again without mention of any organized, commercial type of vexatious litigants.

There is also some psychiatric literature and a small amount of legal scholarship about the usual vexatious litigants as well. An up-to-date bibliography can be found in Didi Herman, “Hopeless cases: race, racism and the ‘vexatious litigant’” (2012) 8(1) International Journal of Law in Context 27. Professor Herman of Kent Law School also reviews the small amount of legal literature that does exist, from the UK, Australia and the U.S.

Justice Rooke’s decision may well be the impetus that gives rise to a body of legal literature on OPCA litigants’ vexatious litigation. If not. debates on issues raised by this phenomenon may be stymied by a lack of reliable data.  For example, without decent data, it is impossible to engage in any sort of balancing process, weighing the various access to justice aspects of the issues.

2) Vexatious litigation in the family law context

The Meads v Meads case is itself a family law case. Justice Rooke’s decision was rendered as a result of an application made in a divorce and matrimonial property action that Mrs. Meads initiated on January 11, 2011. Mrs. Meads’ lawyer advised the court that, although Mr. Meads generally paid court-ordered spousal support, he was delaying the divorce with unorthodox documents and a refusal to disclose his financial records.

The Meads case thus raises the question of whether the family law context is one in which OPCA litigants can frequently, perhaps even disproportionately, be found.  It also raises the issue of whether vexatious litigation in that context requires different types of responses?

What evidence is there of OPCA litigation in the family law context? In Canada, based on his research into reported cases, Justice Rooke noted (at paras 161-163) the various types of proceedings in which they appear in Canada and he listed spousal and child support and child custody as two of the seven types in which vexatious litigation can most often be found.

Other than Justice Rooke’s research, however, the sparse anecdotal and empirical evidence is confined to the more usual vexatious litigant context. The numbers and issues raised by that commentary, however, does suggest research into OPCA litigation in the family law context is needed.

For example, in her review of vexatious litigants in the United Kingdom, Professor Herman noted there were 190 individuals on the Vexatious Litigant list published by the Court Service (Herman at page 32). Of the 190, just 44 – less than 25% – were women. However, because other empirical studies suggest more men than women may turn to civil litigation to solve problems and that would account for some of this discrepancy (Herman at page 32, citing R.L. Sandefur, “Access to Civil Justice and Race, Class, and Gender Inequality” (2008) 34:16 Annual Review of Sociology 34 1). This would also partly explain why fewer women engage in repeat litigation. Nevertheless, the significantly low numbers of women declared vexatious in the UK suggests further study is warranted into the possibly gendered nature of vexatious litigation, at least in the family law context.

In Australia, the specialized Family Court has more vexatious litigants than any other jurisdiction in Australia. Although research is inhibited by prohibitions on publications, according  to one expert “the current family law court has three times the number of vexatious litigant orders than the other ten superior courts combined, in a third of the time” (Nikolas Kirby, “When Rights Cause Injustice: A Critique of the Vexatious Proceedings Act 2008 (NSW) (2009) 31 Sydney Law Review 163 at 169, note 38).  See also Grant Lester, Beth Wilson, Lynn Griffin & Paul E. Mullen, “Unusually Persistent Complainants” (2004) 184 Brit. J. Psychiatry 352 (discussing research in Australia and Sweden).

In their written submission to the Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria (Women’s Legal Service Victoria, 4 July 2008 – pdf 198.54 Kb), an Australian group providing women with legal and other support services noted significant parallels between family violence and stalking conduct and the types of behaviour exhibited by vexatious litigants. As they stated in their submission (at page 2), “[a] key feature of at least some vexatious litigation is an attempt to control the other party or maintain contact with him or her via persistent litigation. It appears that some vexatious litigants use the legal system as a vehicle for control and harassment of the other party.”  In their oral submissions to the Committee, Women’s Legal Services Victoria noted that the vexatious litigant might want to personally cross-examine the targeted spouse and continually engage them in litigious conduct in order to maintain contact. The Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria agreed, after hearing this and other evidence, that there are particular problems in family violence proceedings that specific legislation needed to address.

There is no reason to think that the experience in Canada is radically different than that in the UK or Australia.  Disproportionality is not the only issue, however. In the family law context, additional factors include the safety issues of targeted women constantly being brought back to be face to face with this person. See, for example, commentary from the United States discussing the use of litigation as violence in the family law context: Leah J. Pollema, “Beyond the Bounds of Zealous Advocacy: The Prevalence of Abusive Litigation in Family Law and the Need for Tort Remedies” (2006-2007) 75 UMKC L. Rev. 1107; Christian Diesen, “The Justice Obsession Syndrome” (2007-2008) 30 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 487; Mary Przekop, “One More Battleground: Domestic Violence, Child Custody, and the Batterers’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Victims through the Courts” (2010-2011) 9 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 1053.

Consider, for example, vexatious litigant applications as a response. The lack of a central registry of vexatious litigants in Canada is a problem; a vexatious litigant can start a new action in a second province or territory, despite an order against them in one jurisdiction. It is then up to their target to bring an application to stop the proceeding, assuming they search for or know about a vexatious litigant order. But many targets of vexatious family law litigation will not want to be involved in applications to have their spouses declared vexatious litigants because they do not want to be held responsible for the declaration.

A system of graduated orders – litigation limitation orders – such as those used in the civil system in the UK and those recommended by the Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria (Recommendation No. 13 at Final Report 171) might be more suited to the family law context than the current vexatious litigant provisions which allow only one extreme solution — no access to any court without leave — which people are reluctant to use. In a previous ABlawg post, “How persistent does a vexatious litigant have to be?”, I raised the question of whether vexatious litigant orders were seldom sought and difficult to obtain, granted in only the most extreme cases. Graduated orders might help solve this reluctance. See the written submission of Professor Tania Sourdin, Professor of Conflict Resolution, University of Queensland to the Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria and Didi Herman, “Hopeless cases: race, racism and the ‘vexatious litigant’” (2012) 8(1) International Journal of Law in Context 27.

3) A new type of vexatious litigant?

Justice Rooke indicates (at para 199) that OPCA litigants are very different from ordinary vexatious litigants.  It is true that the indicia, motifs, concepts and arguments OPCA litigants get from the OPCA gurus are unusual and identifiable.  However, aside from the source of their materials, just how different some of the OPCA litigants are from the ordinary vexatious litigant? To what extent are some OPCA litigants merely desperate litigants who have conducted Internet searches looking for information helpful to their cases and seized on OPCA material, rather than (for example) one of my ABlawg posts?

Professor Herman argues that we can understand ordinary vexatious litigation as being about a passionate search for justice, as opposed to (or at least as well as) an “obsession”, and that rather than suffering from “delusions” many typical vexatious litigants may instead be very well aware of “reality” but simply not prepared to accept or succumb to it.  To what extent does this describe at least some of the OPCA litigants?

Many of the groups who appeared before the Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria warned about casting the vexatious litigant net too widely. For example, the written joint submission of the Public Interest Law Clearing House and Human Rights Law Resource Centre argued (at para 52)

The common characteristics of vexatious litigants based on our experience and research include a lack of insight into the unmeritorious nature of the proceedings they bring to court, an inability by some to accept legal advice, and an almost obsessive need to keep returning to court seeking ‘justice’ after being rebuffed time and again. Vexatious litigants are also prone to creating an illusory web of conspiracy against them comprised of public figures, the judiciary, and any organisation or individual who they have come into conflict with. Some also have unrealistic expectations of the legal system and at times seek redress that is grossly disproportionate to their grievance.

If the ordinary vexatious litigant is “prone to creating an illusory web of conspiracy against them comprised of public figures, the judiciary, and any organisation or individual who they have come into conflict with,” how different are they from the OPCA litigant?  Once again, more research and scholarship is needed.

The psychology of conspiracy theories

The psychology of conspiracy theories

By: Dr Jovan Byford (Department of Psychology)

Originally posted on Open.edu

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

There is a curious relationship between psychology and the study of conspiracy theories. Historians, philosophers, sociologists and political scientists often present conspiracy theories as being of an essentially psychological nature.

Detail from a mural at Denver Airport

(Creative commons image) A detail of a mural in Denver International Airport, subject of much conspiracy theorist interest. A plea for peace, or a plan for future martial law?

Many such writers describe belief in conspiracies as manifestations of ‘paranoia’, ‘anxiety’, ‘fantasy’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘projection’, or as fulfilling a profound psychological need for certainty in the precarious (post-)modern age. In everyday discourse too, ‘conspiracy theorists’ are often labelled ‘lunatics’, ‘kooks’ or ‘paranoiacs’, implying that they suffer from some intrinsic psychological deficiency or dysfunction.

Yet, surprisingly, little psychological research has been conducted on this topic. In fact, it is only since the 1990s that social psychologists have turned their attention to the conspiracy theory phenomenon and scrutinised its psychological roots in a systematic way.

Investigating the conspiracy theorist

Much psychology research has focused on identifying factors which predispose certain individuals to endorse conspiracy theories. Given that not everyone believes in conspiracy theories, psychological studies have sought to uncover what distinguishes believers from non-believers, and in so doing create a “psychological profile” of conspiracist individuals.

Researchers have explored the relevance of more general demographic factors like gender, socio-economic status, educational level or ethnic background and so on, but also things like disenchantment with political authority, sense of powerlessness, political cynicism, authoritarianism or alienation from society.

They have also looked at personality factors and aspects of cognitive functioning (resistance to disconfirming evidence, tendency to circular thinking, attributional styles, etc.) to see whether conspiracism is underpinned by some intrinsic perceptual or reasoning deficit which leads people to misunderstand or misinterpret causal relations in the world.

Overall, this quest for the psychological profile of conspiracy theorists has yielded modest results. Conspiracy theorists have been shown to be quite similar to sceptics in terms of cognitive functioning or personality. In fact, the only consistent finding is that believers tend to be disenchanted with authority and cynical about the mainstream of politics.

But this is hardly surprising: these are the central motifs of any conspiracy theory!

Look again…

One possible reason why the psychology of conspiracy theories produced so few meaningful results is that researchers have been approaching this phenomenon in the wrong way. They have tended to see conspiracy theories first and foremost asindividual beliefs, thereby reducing them to events that are going on inside a person’s mind (information processing biases, personality characteristics, etc.).

But conspiracy theories are not just a set of individual attitudes.

Did you hear about…?

Anyone who has had the opportunity to engage with conspiracy theories will realise that they are, in fact, a dynamic set of stories and shared assumptions about the world which persist and evolve over time. As such, they are continuously exchanged, debated, evaluated and modified as people try to make sense of the world and events around them.

Also, conspiracy theorising is more often than not a shared endeavour and a social activity, performed through organisations, movements, campaigns, or through jointly produced websites and internet forums.

This means that conspiracy theories are least interesting (or least damaging) when they are confined to a person’s head; they are far more interesting when they are in the public domain, circulating as a set of ideas – on the basis of which movements are established, political projects forged and power relations challenged and sustained.

A theory of conspiracy theories

Where does this leave the psychology of conspiracy theories? Clearly, looking for stable psychological characteristics or cognitive biases that differentiate believers from sceptics may not be the most productive avenue for research to pursue. Instead, the focus should be turned to the study of conspiracy theories as a social and ideological phenomenon.

As a number of social psychologists (including Henri Tajfel, Michael Bilig, Keneth Gergen or Serge Moscovici) have argued over the years, psychology ought to be turning its attention away from looking for psychological underpinnings of social phenomena and consider instead how specific ideologies, worldviews and cultural traditions produce particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

Put differently, it is not that ‘faulty reasoning’ causes people to endorse conspiracy-based explanations, but rather that something within those explanations, within their thematic configuration, narrative structure and explanatory logic, leads people to exhibit these seemingly ‘faulty’ patterns of thought.

This suggests that the central object of study should be the structure, logic and evolution of conspiracy theories, with a view to explaining how and why this tradition of explanation persists in modern society, and how it sustains distinct forms of individual and collective thought and action.