A gold-fringed United States flag has been removed from the Ferry County Courtroom because the flag supposedly eliminated constitutional rights.
With the help of a county commissioner and an American Legion official, constitutionalist Ralph Westlake replaced the offending banner earlier this month with a rights-respecting fringeless flag.
Now, at least two judges want the old flag back. Other public officials and individuals are upset by the spectacle of the county government caving in to pressure from what might be called “fringe” groups.
Westlake had been haranguing county officials for months about the danger of gold-fringed flags. As his authority, he cited a constitutionalist book called “Vultures in Eagle’s Clothing.”
The publication says gold fringe indicates an “admiralty flag” and military law, meaning that normal constitutional rights are suspended in the courtroom.
“If you enter a courtroom and enter a plea, in the presence of that flag, you have acquiesced … to federal military jurisdiction,” the document warns. “It is your warning that you are leaving the majority of your unalienable (sic) rights, as protected by the Constitution, at the door.”
Now that Ferry County has been stripped of its maritime flag, Assessor John Sweetman sees a new danger: “We will be plagued with rampant cases of piracy on Curlew Lake that will go unpunished.”
When he can keep from chuckling, Sweetman is among the attorneys, judges and other public officials who are dismayed by an action they fear makes the county a laughingstock.
“It’s embarrassing that someone like Ralph Westlake is the element of our community that gets visibility,” Republic attorney Rebecca Baker said.
Association with constitutionalists also may be detrimental to mainstream conservatives who are fighting governmental excesses they say have eroded personal liberties and devastated rural economies. To maintain its credibility, the conservative Ferry County Action League denies membership to Westlake and other extremists.
If people consider his ideas about flags to be nonsense, “they’re pretty ignorant,” Westlake said.
In the past, commissioners also have done their best to ignore the demands of imaginative constituents like Westlake.
He declined to comment further.
It hasn’t been easy for Commissioners Gary Kohler and Ed Windsor. An associate of Westlake’s filed bogus liens against their personal property 2-1/2 years ago to protest one of their decisions and is still trying to collect.
Even so, some fear the commissioners have started pandering to the far right. For example, commissioners passed a resolution in April supporting the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which limits the powers of the federal government.
Windsor and Kohler say it was a casual hallway conversation, not a formal decision, that enabled constitutionalists to impose their flag doctrine on the county.
“It makes it look like we’re in their camp, doesn’t it?” Kohler lamented in retrospect.
He and Windsor said Westlake approached the three commissioners about replacing the flag as they were breaking for lunch on Sept. 12.
Windsor said he had no part in the discussion.
Kohler said he stopped briefly and wearily told Westlake he didn’t care whether the flag was changed. New Commissioner Jim Hall stayed and talked longer, Kohler said.
Hall later had a janitor unlock the courtroom so the flag could be replaced with one donated by the local American Legion post. Deputy Superior Court Clerk Jean Booher had refused to open the door without permission from the three judges who control the courtroom.
Hall agreed there was no formal vote on replacing the flag, but said commissioners made a decision apart from the hallway encounter.
“This wasn’t done lightly,” he said. “It took us probably six months of listening and probably we did a little bit of reading on our own.”
In fact, Prosecuting Attorney Al Nielson gave commissioners a two-page analysis of the issue on June 2. He told commissioners fringed flags are legally acceptable for courtrooms even if they also are used for military ceremonies.
Nielson told commissioners the decision belonged to the judges. What’s more, Nielson warned commissioners that bowing to Westlake’s demand “would be seen as a concession to a political group and its ideology.”
All three commissioners say that’s not what happened.
“We do not follow or subscribe to the right-wing antics of the gentleman who introduced this to us,” Hall said, describing himself as a moderate Republican. “I don’t want to be associated with some lunatic right-wing fringe.”
Hall said a government pamphlet convinced him fringed flags are inappropriate for courtrooms, but the constitutionalists’ claim about canceling constitutional rights “sure sounds wacky.”
Superior Court Judge Larry Kristianson said he runs a Washington state court, no matter what flag is in the room. He said he hadn’t heard the concern until January, when Stevens County Commissioner J.D. Anderson refused to take his oath of office in that county’s courtroom because of its fringed flag.
Kristianson and Superior Court Judge Fred Stewart serve Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties, and share the Ferry County courtroom with District Court Judge Linda Eaton.
Eaton told the Ferry County commissioners in a letter she was “disappointed” that they interfered with the judges’ management of the courtroom. She asked the commissioners to return the old flag.
Kristianson supported Eaton’s position. He called Commissioner Hall’s action “hasty and unwise.”
“I think the judges will confer and present a unified position to the commissioners soon,” Kristianson said. “I’m sure that we will get it resolved.”
Hall said the old flag is being cleaned and could be returned if the judges would explain what’s wrong with the new one.
The new flag is fine, Eaton said, but it doesn’t match the courtroom’s gold-fringed Washington state flag. None of the flags seems to be the right size under the federal code on “patriotic customs,” she added.
“If it’s too small, we’ll sew some gold fringe on it and make it bigger,” Hall quipped.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: AN INTERPRETATION OF FRINGE The publication says gold fringe indicates an “admiralty flag” and military law, meaning that normal constitutional rights are suspended in the courtroom.