Case of the Day: Holmes v. Grant County Sheriff’s Department

The case of the day is Holmes v. Grant County Sheriff’s Department (D.N.M. 2018). The plaintiff was Denise-Bradford:Holmes. When you see someone write his or her name this way, with the odd punctuation, watch out—odds are the person is part of the so-called “sovereign citizen” movement, a group of  confused people with outlandish legal ideas they got from one huckster or another. If you want to go down this particular rabbit hole, the ADL has a useful introduction.

Holmes claimed that the sheriff and a deputy sheriff violated New Mexico criminal law and her natural and common-law rights “when they cited and arrested Plaintiff and towed her automobile, allegedly in response to discovering Plaintiff driving her vehicle without a driver’s license, automobile registration, or car insurance.”

I should say, by the way, that I do not mean to mock Holmes, since I know nothing about her and don’t know how she had the misfortune to come to believe things that obviously are not true and that can put her in serious legal jeopardy (perhaps, for example, she believed that as a sovereign citizen she did not have to register her car, carry insurance, etc.).

As the judge construed her complaint, she was asserting a claim under the FSIA. This might be surprising, as the FSIA is a jurisdictional statute that does not create causes of action, and as the county sheriff was obviously not a foreign sovereign. Holmes claimed that she was the foreign sovereign, “a diplomat of the foreign state Bradford Republic.” Her “property and land are on a foreign domicile, within New Mexico, but outside New Mexico and the Federal Zone.”

Why am I writing about this? The magistrate judge, who of course recommended dismissal of the claims, wrote a six-page decision that appeared to take Holmes’s argument seriously:

Plaintiff primarily relies on the notion that she, as an individual, qualifies as a “foreign state” within the meaning of the FSIA, which provides that “a foreign state shall be immune from the jurisdiction of the court of the United States and of the States” except as provided in the Act’s various exceptions.28 U.S.C. § 1604; see also doc. 1 at 2-3. This reliance suffers from at least two flaws. First, the “term ‘foreign state’ on its face indicates a body politic that governs a particular territory.” Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305, 315 (2010). Plaintiff, as a solitary individual, does not qualify under this meaning. Plaintiff may argue that the Bradford Republic exists as an entity separate from her and that she is acting as its agent or instrumentality as defined in FSIA. However, the Supreme Court has rejected the proposition that an individual representing a foreign government can qualify for immunity under the FSIA. Id. at 313-25. Second, the FSIA only confers immunity. It does not provide any basis for a cause of action. Even if one were to accept Plaintiff’s dubious position that she, as a representative of her proclaimed Bradford Republic, qualifies for FSIA immunity, it would not permit her to sue in federal court. At best, it would serve as a defense in the criminal cases brought against her in state court.

Does it make sense for judges to devote time to this sort of thing? Would it be better simply to say, “The plaintiff’s claim under the FSIA is frivolous and must be dismissed?” On the one hand, everyone who pays the filing fee has a right to have his or her case heard and decided, and courts should give reasons for their decisions. On the other hand, there is something ridiculous about writing a lengthy explanation for why obviously frivolous claims should be dismissed. What distinguishes a truly frivolous claim from a merely erroneous claim, loosely speaking, is that anyone with the relevant expertise can look at a frivolous claim and see immediately that it cannot possibly be right.

I’m not sure what the right answer is. I want a litigant to know why her claim has been dismissed, even if the chances are she won’t learn from the decision (if she were reasonable she would not have believed the crazy things in the first place). On the other hand, I don’t want judges to waste time on frivolous matters.

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