It began, like most other working days in the U.S. District Court building in this south-central Montana city, with the familiar cry of “All rise” echoing off the walls of Courtroom 1 on the fifth floor.
But the voice didn’t belong to the court clerk announcing the arrival of Judge James M. Burns. Instead, the announcer was LeRoy Schweitzer, the incarcerated leader of the Montana freemen who kept federal law enforcement officials at bay for 81 days last spring near Jordan, Mont. Schweitzer was loudly attempting to turn a routine pretrial hearing in his own case into a session of his own “court,” which he sometimes calls the “Court of International Trade.”
“All rise for the King’s Bench,” Schweitzer announced. “The director is speaking and this is a court under Article III jurisdiction, common-law venue.”
Six months after they peacefully ended their long standoff with heavily armed FBI agents surrounding them on an eastern Montana ranch, the freemen continue to make life difficult for federal law enforcement.
Most of them, despite the rigors of confinement in the Yellowstone County Jail in Billings, remain defiant in the face of a government authority they reject: They have refused to be fingerprinted, declined the assistance of legal counsel, frequently disrupted court proceedings and even threatened federal magistrates. Those who are not cooperating with normal booking procedures have been under a 23-hour-a-day lock-down and denied customary jail house privileges.
A number of hearings held this month were typical, as most of the 24 defendants were re-arraigned on updated federal indictments charging them with a variety of crimes, including mail and bank fraud, threatening public officials and aiding fugitives to avoid arrest.
Over the course of several days, some of the most militant freemen frequently sought to disrupt the court proceedings, refused to enter pleas, tried to convene their own courts, argued with the federal magistrate and threw copies of the new indictments on the floor. Eventually, three of the freemen were ejected from the courtroom and a federal judge authorized law enforcement agents to use “such reasonable force as necessary” to fingerprint the defendants.
An earlier attempt to fingerprint defendant Dale M. Jacobi “did not go smoothly,” in the wry assessment of U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci. Jacobi had to be treated for an injured thumb.
And so it goes in the often bizarre world of the Montana freemen, the far right, anti-government zealots who believe they must submit to no authority save their own “natural law” form of self-government. After two years of harassing and intimidating local and state officials in Montana with threats and bogus liens, the freemen burst onto the national scene in the spring when they avoided arrest by federal agents and holed up, heavily armed, on a Garfield County ranch complex for nearly three months before surrendering June 13.
A half year in jail apparently has done little to temper their hostility toward the federal government’s judicial machinery, even though the court has been forced to show considerable forbearance in the face of the freemen’s obstreperous behavior.
During a September hearing, for example, freemen Steven C. Hance and Jon Barry Nelson repeatedly hectored Judge Burns as he patiently explained their right to represent themselves and the potential drawbacks of such a strategy.
At other times, the proceedings have taken on a surreal quality not normally found in federal court. Consider this exchange in July between Jacobi and Burns:
Jacobi: “I object to being called a person first of all.”
Burns: “Beg your pardon?”
Jacobi: “I object to being called a person, as you started out your short speech this morning. I’m not a person. I’m not a United States citizen. I do not grant venue to the United States. I do not waive jurisdiction to the United States.”
Burns: “All right. And if you care to do so, you are entitled to 10 days within which to add written comments and observations and so forth. And it will be deemed timely.”
With no trial date set yet, the case of the freemen is straining the court in other ways as well. Documents seized from the ranch and from the freemen’s computer hard drives, as well as government evidence such as transcripts of intercepted phone calls - hundreds of thousands of pages in all - are being copied onto CD-ROM disks so they may be instantly available during discovery.
With so much documentary evidence, the government has been forced to hire a computer consultant. And for the 18 freemen who have refused the services of attorneys, the court has appointed “standby” counsel who must be ready to step in and represent them should the freemen be disqualified from representing themselves.