Birthers form "citizen grand jury," "indict" Obama

The movement that believes Barack Obama is ineligible to be president tries a new legal tack, one that includes a threat of violence.

Published April 1, 2009 8:20PM (EDT)

Having been stymied at every turn by the courts, by elected officials and by the facts, the "Birthers" -- those people who believe Barack Obama is not eligible for the presidency -- are now getting even more creative. In the movement's latest big action, a group in Georgia formed a "citizen grand jury" and "indicted" Obama on charges including fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

This is no April Fool's joke; the people behind it are deadly serious. Georgia resident Carl Swensson, who took the lead in forming the "grand jury," has even been aping a prosecutor's language in discussing his actions, saying he can't discuss the indictment in detail because of the possibility Obama will be prosecuted. And he's sent the indictment to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and the state attorney general, among others.

Swensson claims the authority to do this under a rather novel interpretation of the Magna Carta, the 13th century document laying out the rights of British nobles. It appears Swensson based his legal reasoning on the arguments of a tax denier named William Thornton. (As Jason Zengerle wrote in the latest New York Times Magazine, tax deniers are a whole other subset of conspiracy theorists, who rely on similarly creative and frivolous arguments in an attempt to get out of paying federal income taxes. They're almost always unsuccessful.)

Swensson and Thornton rely upon the 61st clause of the Magna Carta for their arguments, saying it's valid precedent under common law. This clause allowed the English barons to form a 25-man council from among their membership that was charged with enforcing the document. If these barons decided that the king was violating their rights, the clause empowered them to engage in what was essentially an armed rebellion until the king was forced to submit, and kept them from being executed for treason afterwards.

Of course, that has nothing whatsoever to do with a grand jury, and -- presumably -- none of the 25 members of Swensson's group are barons. Plus, the clause was essentially repealed by 1216, just a year after the original document was issued, so it has no actual legal effect now. But in a movement that still believes, without any evidence whatsoever, that Obama was not born in Hawaii, that little inconvenient fact is unlikely to sway anyone. Indeed, Swensson claims he's been contacted by people in 20 other states who are looking to follow his lead. And with the movement's newest hero, the eccentric dentist-slash-lawyer Orly Taitz, backing Swensson and testifying before his group, that number is likely to grow.

Stories like this one can seem insignificant, especially given the ludicrous legal theories being used. But it's worth remembering that the conservative news Web site pushing this, World Net Daily, claims to get several million visitors every month. Plus, there's an implicit threat of violence here. Swensson and his group are claiming the right to the same method of redress granted to those 13th century barons. The rules for the "common law grand jury" laid out by Thornton include this, from his section on enforcement of the grand jury's actions:

The grand jury may distrain and oppress the government in every way in their power, namely, by taking the homes, lands, possessions, and any way else they can until amends shall have been made according to the sole judgment of the grand jury.

If it seems a little odd to you that anyone would claim a right to essentially commit felonies, and would then inform a U.S. attorney of that in advance, well, you're not the only one.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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