Pleading the 14th

A Coeur d'Alene mayoral candidate says he's above the court system. Is he right?

If a mayoral candidate says the government has no sway over him, can he still be a part of the government?

That’s the question some are asking of Joshua Arnold, a 30-year-old planner for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who announced in July he was running for mayor. The Republican Party precinct leader, who says he’d fight special interests, stand up for the Lake City’s education corridor and make government more responsive, got an unexpected bit of publicity shortly after his announcement, when it came to light that he had caused a courtroom kerfuffle in early March.

Facing misdemeanor charges for child injury in a Kootenai County court (he and his wife are accused of leaving their kids at home while running errands), Arnold refused to stand before the magistrate judge, claiming, according to reports, that he was a “14th Amendment citizen” and therefore the court had no jurisdiction over him. “I am a sovereign of the republic with rights given to me by God,” he wrote in an affidavit.

The disagreement became a scuffle, and, according to press reports, five bailiffs were unable to restrain him. The fracas resulted in a broken elbow for one of the bailiffs, five days in custody for Arnold (for contempt of court), and one lingering question: What exactly is 14th Amendment citizenship, and does it really give Arnold a loophole?

Mark DeForrest, a professor at Gonzaga’s School of Law, is the co-author of two papers published in the Gonzaga Law Review entitled “Truth or Consequences: The Jurisprudential Errors of the Militant Right” (Parts One and Two). DeForrest and Jim Vache (a former dean and Washington assistant attorney general) take on the far right’s use of common law, their stance on militias, and the meaning of yellow fringe on flags flown in courtrooms (go ahead: Google it). But Section IV-B of the earlier paper deals squarely with the 14th Amendment citizenship argument.

DeForrest points out that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed three years after the end of Civil War, was intended to broaden the definition of who could be a citizen of the United States. The amendment conferred citizenship on anyone born or naturalized in the United States and made this a national right that couldn’t be overridden by any particular state’s laws. In the context of Reconstruction, this effectively gave citizenship to African-Americans and guaranteed that it wouldn’t be infringed upon by the states (at that time, even some northern states didn’t give blacks citizenship).

But DeForrest says militant far-righters see a different distinction in the plain language of the amendment, viewing people who were citizens before the passage of the amendment as “sovereign citizens,” or “we the people,” and those granted citizenship afterwards as something inferior.

“[The latter] have a kind of lesser form of citizenship,” DeForrest says of the far-right view, “because this is granted by the government, unlike the ‘we the people’ citizenship, which is recognized by the government but not granted by the government.”

It’s a fuzzy distinction and one that often gets changed to suit the circumstances, DeForrest says, but it’s often drawn along very clear lines.

“Some say it’s only white males, some say it’s white male landowners, some [say] white male landowners who are Protestants,” he says. “The idea is that there’s some group in our society that has the most powerful, exclusive form of citizenship.”

And that, according to DeForrest, makes them believe they’re exempt from normal jurisdiction.

“The argument is that an individual who has one type of citizenship is not subject to the jurisdiction of courts that function in a different kind of citizenship,” says DeForrest. “But the idea that [the 14th Amendment] created two separate tiers of citizenship, that’s malarkey. There’s no evidence in the ratifying debates or the history of the amendment.”

Arnold’s line of reasoning remains a little unclear; he did not return repeated calls by The Inlander. But readers at Coeur d’Alene news Websites seem to believe Arnold clearly blew his chances at the mayor’s office. One commenter at Huckleberries Online describes the campaign as “doomed.”

“He’ll attract the support and votes of the militia types,” writes another poster, “but there’s no way he’ll win.”

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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...