U.S. District Judge James Holderman was in his chambers in early 2011 when he opened a piece of mail from a group calling itself the Sovereign American Consulate.
Inside was a document accusing the veteran jurist of failing to answer a summons issued a month earlier that had demanded he appear at a public library branch on the city’s Far South Side or face arrest. The heading of the document read “Common Law Bill of Indictment.”
“I looked at it and I told my staff, ‘Uh, I’ve been indicted,’” Holderman deadpanned Monday from the witness stand in federal court. “I didn’t take it seriously...but they seemed to be earnest about their intimidation of me.”
The testimony came at the outset of the bizarre trial of Cherron Phillips, a follower of the so-called sovereign citizen movement charged with targeting Holderman and other federal judges, prosecutors and court officials with frivolous court filings and slapping bogus liens on their homes and other properties claiming they owed tens of billions of dollars.
Phillips’ trial on 12 counts of retaliation against a federal official for filing false claims features a star-studded cast of alleged victims – including then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow in addition to Holderman, then chief judge of the federal district court in Chicago.
It also has cast a spotlight on the tactics of those who claim to be sovereign citizens, an expanding anti-government movement whose adherents often file nonsensical, complex legal documents and refuse to accept or follow court rules. The movement garnered headlines recently after a man and his wife who claimed in Internet postings to be sovereign citizen devotees ambushed and killed two police officers in Las Vegas before killing a shopper at a Wal-Mart store.
Phillips, 44, is not accused of any acts of violence, and to avoid any bias from jurors who may have followed news reports of the Las Vegas shootings, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan on Monday barred any direct mention of sovereign citizens or other so-called “patriot” groups.
Phillips has professed in court that she doesn't recognize the federal system and that a jury of U.S. citizens would not be a jury of her peers. She’d represented herself for more than a year while awaiting trial, filing a series of odd but unsuccessful motions in an attempt to get her case thrown out. Recently, Phillips has refused to cooperate with her court-appointed attorney.
Reagan, the third judge to be assigned to the case, had warned Phillips that she would be removed from the courtroom if she was “disorderly, disruptive and disrespectful of the court.”
Throughout testimony Monday, Phillips sat motionless at the defense table with her head wrapped in a turquoise scarf, appearing to stare for hours at the far wall of the courtroom instead of looking at the witness stand. After the trial ended for the day, she tried to give news photographers the slip by exiting out a rear door of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. When the cameramen caught up with her, she covered her face with her scarf and calmly crossed Dearborn Street while fiddling with her phone.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Stump told jurors Phillips' troubles at Chicago's federal courthouse stem from her allegedly disruptive behavior at proceedings for her brother, Devon, who pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges. That led to Holderman signing an executive order in February 2011 barring her from the courthouse and from filing documents.
A month after the executive order, Phillips allegedly went to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds' downtown office and started filing false maritime liens -- essentially a claim of a debt attached to a piece of property that can hold up any sale of the asset in the future. A dozen liens in all were filed against those connected to her brother's case, many in the outrageous amount of $100 billion each, Stump said.
The liens were discovered later that year when one of the alleged victims, then-Court Clerk Michael Dobbins, tried to sell a parking space at his Chicago condominium building and learned of the problem from his real estate attorney. The maritime lien listed at the top a fictitious vessel named the “Michael W. Dobbins.”
“I was shocked. I didn’t know anything about it,” Dobbins testified. Told he purportedly owed $100 billion, “I actually kind of laughed,” he said.
His attorney was able to demonstrate to the title company that the lien was bogus and the sale of the parking space went through, Dobbins said.
Holderman testified his first contact with Phillips came in 2010 when she wrote him a letter claiming that “crimes” were being committed in connection with her brother’s drug prosecution. A year later, after Holderman had issued the order barring Phillips from the courthouse, the judge received the fictitious “summons” from the Sovereign American Consulate ordering him to appear at the Woodson branch of the Chicago Public Library at 95th and Halsted Streets.
“It said if I didn’t show up I would be arrested,” Holderman testified. “...My reaction was that these people are attempting to intimidate me in some way.”
Holderman later discovered that a series of $100 billion liens had been placed against properties he had some connection to – including the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the high-rise Loop federal prison.
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