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“Patriots Gone Beserk”

This week’s edition of the Flathead Beacon has another take on the extremely disturbing story about “Citizen Grand Juries“.  A proposed ballot initiative sponsored by Duane A. Sipe of Stevensville would allow a petition by 0.5% of the registered voters in a county to call a grand jury. Currently only a state district judge has the authority to summon a grand jury. The grand jury alone would decide how long it would meet and the breadth and scope of its inquiry. Under the proposal, an indictment by eight members of the 11-member jury would have to be prosecuted by the county attorney. If the county attorney refuses, he could be indicted for obstruction of justice. If the county attorney refuses to prosecute, the grand jury could require the state’s attorney general to help prosecute or hire a private prosecutor. This story has been around for a while now and has been discussed elsewhere, but I think it’s time we put it into a bit of historical perspective.

Citizen Grand Juries” or “Common Law Courts” have long been a favorite contrivance of militia, “patriot” and anti-tax movements. In 1996, the Freemen “Christian Patriot” movement near Jordan, Montana used their own make-believe courts to issue liens against their opponents and to proclaim their right to arrest and judge those with whom they disagreed. In Georgia recently, a group of “birthers” formed their own “citizen grand jury” and “indicted” President Obama on charges of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

For some historical perspective, I want to harken back to World War One. In the mass hysteria during our entrance into the war, President Woodrow Wilson asked state governors and legislatures to create “state councils of defense” for the purpose of;

  • increasing food production
  • recruiting men for the draft
  • raising money for war drives
  • promoting public support for the war

In 1917, Montana Governor Sam V. Stewart created the Montana Council of Defense by executive proclamation with himself as chairman. Since it was only a proclamation by the governor, the council had no legal authority. It was really just an advisory panel to the governor (CZARS!). In 1918, the Montana Legislature, in special session and under the direction of the Anaconda Copper Company, passed a bill that officially created the Montana Council of Defense and appropriated $25,000 for operating expenses. The legislation permitted the Council to do “anything not contradicted by the U.S. Constitution or the Montana Constitution“.

Those powers were not nearly enough for the state council. They passed seventeen new orders in seven months. The Council gave itself powers to investigate, subpoena and punish violators of perceived wrongs. It could hold hearings and compel witnesses to attend. It could fine and/or imprison violators. They created supporting councils in each Montana county with the same powers as the state council. County councils were able to certify town and district groups “open to anyone who wished to join”. The movement drew in large numbers of “super-patriots”. The community councils became “third-degree committees“. They were watchdogs of community standards of “Americanism“. They could harass anyone whom they found to be “un-American“. The Council operated as a shadow government in Montana for two years.

The State Council banned the teaching of the German language in Montana schools and forbade the use to the German language from the pulpit. They created lists of banned books. They tried, unsucessfully to create their own 400-man police force. Their favorite targets were “Socialists”, especially members of unions, pacifists, Mennonites, Germans and Russians and any suspected German sympathizers.

County councils created “standards of Americanism” Suspects were brought to the county courthouse or city hall and forced to kiss the flag, sing all verses of God Bless America, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance ten times. In Billings a city councilman was forced to resign his job and carry an American flag through the streets to prove his patriotism.

In Rexford, a teacher was accused of “…not being a good citizen”. The teacher admitted that he had refused to  aid in a campaign to sell war stamps in the Rexford school. He said that children should not be taught that  war was worthy of their support. He was brought before the county council in Libby who reported to the  state council. His teaching certificate was revoked by the Superintendent of Public Instruction and he was fired by the local school board.

The Council of Defense, led directly to the passage of the Montana Sedition Act. In an embarrassing episode 78 citizens were convicted and sent to prison. The Montana Sedition Act was the template for the national Sedition Act passed three months later. About 2,000 people were convicted under the national act. The Act was dissolved by Governor Dixon in 1921. The victims of the Montana Sedition Act were officially pardoned by Governor Schweitzer in 2006. If the Montana Sedition Act or the Council of Defense were still around, I would likely be in jail for criticizing the war in Iraq as would many folks who have compared the President to Hitler or Stalin.

According to sponsor Sipe, “My concept is if you keep your nose clean, we’ll never have to have a grand jury”. Call it a Council, a Court, a Grand Jury, or an Inquisition, it’s not about better government. What this movement is really about is pushing a political agenda. Once impaneled with some kind of government legitimacy, their power to harass, threaten and intimidate fellow Montana citizens will allow them to consolidate political power and create a parallel government. We cannot forget the lessons of history.

The proposed ballot initiative has to get the signatures of over 48,000 voters in 40 of the 100 state House districts to qualify for the ballot in 2010.

(The title of this article was stolen from a section by Dave Walter in the book Still Speaking Ill of the Dead: More Jerks in Montana History)

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2 Responses

  1. Why does this smell like a Montana Cowgirl spin off? LOL Maybe I should say “has the fragrance of” rather than “smell”? I don’t sway either way about the Birthers, but there has been a revival of sorts with the People’s Grand Jury. Or at least a grand jury petitioned by the people rather than just a district judge by prosecutor,,, county or state AG. Check out all the national non partisan people’s grand jury movements ie. National Liberty Alliance for one. Our elected servants will continue to screw us to benefit their own personal needs as long as we can’t hold them accountable, remove them and penalize them. The sheep will continue to get slaughtered by the wolves as long as they leave the investigation, presentation and indictment under the authority of other wolves.

  2. […] state has a history of “citizen grand jury” groups.  As the Button Vally Bugle reports, the Montana legislature authorized a citizens’ “Council of Defense” to […]

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