From out of the West they rode, a posse of self-styled sheriffs thundering from one county seat to the next in the pursuit of law and order. It was a scene from the old West, except . . .
It happened only a few weeks ago.
The posse came from Westminister, Md.
They rode in pickup trucks and jeeps.
Their leader was a construction worker.
This peculiar saga began late last year when a band of townsfolk in and around Westminister in Carroll County decided to organize their own law enforcement group, modeled after the sheriff's posse of an earlier age. The real modern-day law enforcers in Maryland didn't take to this idea, however, and challenged the posse's status in court.
Bruce Groff, the elected posse captain who works construction in Westminster, struck back quickly. He sent his men out to every courthouse in the state -- from La Plata to Salisbury to Cumberland -- and there had them file property liens against almost every district and circuit court judge. t
Property liens usually are filed by individuals who believe someone else owes them money. The lien is a legal claim against the alleged debtor's property pending resolution of the debt. Groff's plan was that the property liens, totaling millions of dollars, would disqualify the judges from hearing the state's case against the posse.
Luckily for the attorney general's office, which was bringing the case against Groff's band of men, the posse missed at least one Maryland judge in its trail across the state. That judge was secretly assigned to head the case. As might be expected, he swiftly threw out all the property liens and declared that the posse's activities were illegal.
According to Groff, the posse counts some 150 local men among its members. It was organized last December, he said, as a nonviolent law enforcement group of conservative persuasion. He noted that several posse members had been invited to address the local Ku Klux Klan on the subject of constitutional law.
"Our basic function," said another posse leader, the Rev. Buck Harris, "is to wake up our local government here. The law's been broken piece by piece as people lose their constitutional rights in favor of socialized government."
The posse alleges that Maryland officials have violated the constitutional rights of citizens by taking away most law enforcement powers from county sheriff's departments. As a means of protesting this, the posse filed common law property liens against several Carroll County officials.
When the state decided to challenge these liens in court, the posse filed liens against the judge assigned to hear the case. Another judge was then assigned to the case, but he, too, was hit with a lien by the litigious posse.
The process spread like a forest fire. Soon nearly everyone of Maryland's 200 judges had received notice from the posse that property liens were being filed against them.
The judges were accused of violating the posse's constitutional rights through "outrageous conduct; conspiring with the President and Congress of the United States to violate the United States Constitution." In addition, the posse's legal papers referred to the state judges as "pettifogging shysters."
Groff apparently had learned this technique of thwarting the judicial process from conservative groups in other parts of the country. There have been several reports in recent years of such groups filing common law property liens against officials of whom they disapprove. The liens, frivolous as they may appear, can prevent officials from obtaining bank loans and can damage credit ratings.
When the judges of Maryland were served the legal notices, they anxiously forwarded requests for assistance to the state attorney general's office. Robert C. Murphy, the chief judge of Maryland Court of Appeals, issued a memorandum asuring the unnerved jurists that the state would represent them to court.
One of the few judges whose name did not appear among those hit with property liens was secretly chosen to hear the case. This judge's name was not revealed until the morning the case was to be heard.
Judge Eugene M. Lerner of Anne Arundel County heard the case last Friday and issued his opinion invalidating common law liens in Maryland. His ruling left Groff and his posse unhappy, to say the least. Groff said he has taken the case to the FBI office in Baltimore. If the FBI doesn't assist the posse, he said, then he'll simply sue the United States government.