Challenging the legitimacy of state government is no easy task — especially in the unlikely venue of a car-repossession hearing.
But that’s just what Doug Stehling tried recently at the Buncombe County Courthouse.
Stehling is one of a group of people seeking to legally re-establish the state of North Carolina under the constitution it had before the Civil War, when the federal government had less control over the states. (See “T.I.G.E.R. by the tail,” Aug. 9 Xpress.)
Led by Charlotte carpenter John Ainsworth, group members declared three years ago that they had re-established the state under the 1776 constitution. To avoid confusion, they named the reconstituted state the North-Carolina American Republic.
Republic citizens in the Charlotte area tried to challenge North Carolina’s legitimacy in Gaston County traffic court last year, but the district attorney’s office dismissed the case, Ainsworth noted in an interview last summer. Ainsworth, who serves the Republic as a senator, argued in that case that the state of North Carolina didn’t have jurisdiction because the state itself is unconstitutional.
This fall, however, citizens of the Republic tried a different setting — a hearing before Buncombe County Assistant Clerk of Court/Hearing Officer Richard Schumacher. Stehling was joined by Ainsworth and five other supporters, who filed into Schumacher’s office to watch the proceedings.
Schumacher opened the hearing by stating that its purpose was to find out whether the Bank of America was entitled to take back Stehling’s black 1996 Ford Explorer.
From that point on, the hearing vacillated between the pedestrian and the surreal. The bank’s lawyer, Diane Brock Oser of Winston-Salem, presented mundane details about missed payments while Stehling and Ainsworth pitched their position on constitutional issues dating back to Reconstruction.
Republic citizens believe North Carolina’s government became unconstitutional in 1868, when Gov. Jonathan Worth was replaced by William Woods Holden, a move viewed as a surrender of North Carolina to the U.S. military.
Stehling identified himself as Douglas-Raymond:Stehling (he uses the unusual punctuation in his name to differentiate himself from the identity on file with the federal government), declaring: “I do wish to challenge the jurisdiction.”
At first, Oser seemed befuddled by the hearing’s unconventional turn. But she gradually recovered, arguing that if Stehling was the man who bought the car, the jurisdiction was proper.
Schumacher, noting that he had read through much of Stehling’s voluminous documentation earlier, took a few minutes to skim the documents, including a “plea in bar” asking that the case be tossed out of court. It said, in part, that “the so-called ‘State’ attempting to prosecute this matter was created unconstitutionally and therefore is not created in law.”
The hearing officer then overruled Stehling’s plea.
“I object,” countered Stehling.
Oser presented information about the loan and the last time Stehling had made payments on the vehicle (back in March).
Stehling objected again and tried to call Ainsworth as a witness. But Schumacher said that the issue was whether the Bank of America had a security interest in the property, and whether the loan was in default. The jurisdictional issues, he added, could be appealed “on up the road.”
After testimony about the vehicle, the payments, and whether his signature on a bank document was legit or a “masterful forgery,” Stehling returned to the issue of jurisdiction.
And though Schumacher noted that it would be “very foolish” for him to decide that issue in his court when other courts have already ruled on it, he finally allowed Stehling to call Ainsworth as a witness.
Ainsworth blamed what he called a jurisdictional problem on “about nine acts of Congress,” passed over presidential veto, that basically annulled the state of North Carolina immediately after the Civil War.
“Do you believe the proceedings here are legitimate, given that I am a North-Carolina American Republic citizen?” Stehling asked.
Oser objected to the question, but Schumacher overruled her.
“I can find no evidence of it in the law, only in usurpation,” Ainsworth replied.
Ainsworth added that the federal Reconstruction Acts readmitting North Carolina to the union after the Civil War — which were passed over the veto of President Andrew Johnson — had no foundation in law. Congress’ refusal to let the Supreme Court rule on Reconstruction reveals a “cover-up,” Ainsworth complained.
“Law cannot remedy the existence of the state now administering this court,” he declared.
Oser then asked Stehling his opinion of the value of the 1996 Ford Explorer. He said he had no idea, and he admitted that he still had it in his possession.
Stehling tried to call Oser as a witness, but Schumacher said that lawyers trying a case can’t testify. Stehling then tried to question another witness about whether the Bank of America is licensed by the secretary of state’s office to do business in North Carolina. Schumacher told him that the bank doesn’t have to be licensed in the state to sue a resident of that state.
Jurisdictional issues aside, Stehling argued that he had agreed to a loan and not an “exchange.”
In the end, however, Schumacher found that there was probable cause to seize the Explorer.
“I think I was pretty patient,” he told the group after adjourning the hearing.
Group members chatted briefly with Schumacher, and Ainsworth gave him a verbal pat on the back, saying, “I appreciate your patience and your leeway.”
And Oser noted on her way out that she hadn’t encountered anything like it in a courtroom in her 24 years of practicing law.
“I gather [that] these people are challenging whether or not the court can have authority or jurisdiction over them … and at the same time, he’s using the system to argue his case,” she reflected, adding, “It was bewildering.”
Stehling, meanwhile, seemed disappointed by the outcome. “I just feel like my inexperience with the court system was detrimental to the cause of establishing jurisdiction for the North-Carolina American Republic,” he noted.
And Schumacher said later that it was the first time he’d heard a defense like that in a car-repossession hearing.
“Everyone’s entitled to make their own argument,” he observed.
Before leaving the courthouse, a supporter offered Stehling some encouraging words. “Keep it up! ” he urged. “That’s experience.”
When contacted after the hearing, Stehling said he’d turned his Explorer over to the bank. But he said he needed to consult with other Republic citizens before deciding whether to appeal the decision.