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False Claims Used to Harass
In Illinois and Connecticut, one man filed so many meritless claims against judges and others that, as a result, he is no longer permitted to file civil suits in federal courts in those jurisdictions. As one court decision read, "[his] litigious conduct in its entirety yields the inescapable conclusion that he persistently resorts to legal processes without regard to the merits of the claims asserted and that he invokes those processes largely to harass persons who have unluckily crossed his path."
Judge Jose Cabranes (2nd Cir.) was one of those unlucky people. A lawsuit was filed against Cabranes and his wife in the Supreme Court of the State of New York at the same time a lis pendens on the title of Cabranes’ Connecticut home was filed. The lis pendens was lifted only after the Department of Justice, acting on Cabranes’ behalf, filed a motion to remove the pending lawsuit.
The troubling fact is that the litigious individual who filed a false claim against Cabranes is not alone. Filing a false claim is seen by many people as a way in which to harass judges—usually because of judicial decisions. Often, the claims take the form of false liens against property for the satisfaction of a debt.
Some tax protest groups have sold "how-to" kits on filing claims against judges. A Florida couple followed the instructions and filed a false lien against Judge Anne Conway (M.D. Fla.) claiming the judge owed them $25 million. Conway earned the couples’ disapproval—and accusations of treason—by sending back to state court their mortgage foreclosure case.
"There was no Florida state law at the time to protect against a false lien," said Conway. "According to then current recording laws, anyone could file a lien, even if it was false. Laws vary from state to state, and I think there should be a uniform federal statute so that judges in Florida receive the same treatment as judges in a state where laws offer some protection."
Chief Judge R. Allan Edgar (E. D. Tenn.) has had a few close calls. "One disgruntled litigant had a lien against my home all ready for filing," he said. "He got as far as the register’s office, but an alert employee prevented him from filing it. If the lien had been filed, it would have been difficult to remove it."
A provision in the proposed Federal Courts Improvement Act would protect federal judges against the malicious recording of fictitious liens by creating a new federal criminal sanction. Chief Judge Deanell Tacha (10th Cir.) testified on the bill before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.
"Judges are targeted with these false liens—usually because of totally unrelated litigation, and not because of a legitimate claim on property," said Tacha. The Judiciary hopes a federal action might be a deterrent against this type of filing."
"Removing the liens takes time, costs money, and causes headaches," said Judge Jack D. Shanstrom (D. Mont.), who has had a number of false liens filed against him by the Freemen, the same militia group that once filed liens against all the public officials in Glasgow, Montana. "Fortunately none of my property was being mortgaged or sold," said Shanstrom, "so the inconvenience was in getting judges’ orders to remove the liens." Montana has since passed a state law that makes it unlawful to file a false lien.
Chief Judge John C. Coughenour (W. D. Wash.) has probably tried more Freemen and militia-type cases than any other federal judge. And perhaps as a result, he is targeted by these groups for harassment. "Not a month goes by that I don’t receive some official-looking notice," Coughenour says, "saying that if I don’t respond, I’ll owe them some untold millions." Coughenour tosses them in the wastebasket. "Fortunately," said Coughenour, "by state law, the court auditors must reject liens absent a court order to accept them." But he believes false liens have the potential for being real problems in states without such relief. "We really need a federal statute," he said.
Tax protestors have targeted Judge Robert Coyle (E. D. Calif.) and his wife. After attempting to file false liens at the federal district court, two men went to Coyle’s home and delivered the liens personally by pounding on his front door. His wife was home alone at the time. The protesters went on to file a number of false liens against county officials in state court. "They believe they’re beyond the law," Coyle said. "If we didn’t have the assistance of the local U.S. attorney’s office, we’d have a hard time."
Assistant U.S. attorneys often represent federal judges in resolving false liens, bringing action in state court to have the liens removed.
"We all have families, property, and credit ratings. A false lien can devastate you," said Judge David Hittner (S. D. Tex.). "Suppose you’re ready to close on a property and there’s a judgment by a bogus group against you for half a million dollars. That creates a cloud on the title. Once the lien is on the records, credit companies pick it up, and it affects your credit rating. It’s up to you to clear up the mess, and you must go to court to do so–even if it’s not a valid lien." In Texas, a group claiming to be its own government routinely files false liens against officials. And county clerks must accept them, valid or not.
"False liens," said Hittner, "are a way to get to Article III judges."