Of all the beliefs seemingly held by the California man who allegedly shot a Bureau of Land Management ranger this weekend — and those include traces of 9/11 trutherism, conspiracies about fluoridated water and anti-Semitism — perhaps one of the most puzzling is Brent Douglas Cole’s apparent assertion that he is “a statutory Attorney General of the United States.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center linked Cole, 60, who allegedly shot a BLM ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer on Saturday near a campground within the Tahoe National Forest, to a profile in which he described himself that way. (Cole was also wounded in the shootout, and state and federal authorities are investigating the case.)
In addition, legal documents that were apparently prepared by Cole and posted online expound on these beliefs, which can be found in the “sovereign citizen” movement that he seems to be a part of. Prior to this weekend’s shooting, Cole was charged in another case for criminal gun possession. According to the court docket, he had asked to serve as his own attorney.
A Google document cache, linked by social media profiles attributed to Cole, includes apparent court filings for that case. TPM could not confirm that these briefs had been formally filed, but they are marked with the case number in the court docket.
In one of them, Cole described himself as “a statutory Attorney General of the United States”:
My standing is as a statutory Attorney General of the United States arising under 18 U.S.C. Section 1961(10) and the Supreme Court Decision in Rotella v Wood. Under 18 U.S.C. Section 6, I am an agency of the United States. I lawfully entered into said Office. I am in compliance with the requirements of law for occupying said Office. I have faithfully exercised the duties of said office, and my authority has not been revoked. I last proceeded claiming this authority in the United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit in City of Anchorage v Cole in 2007, case number 07-35630.
The refusal to recognize this authority serves to obstruct justice and deny equal protections to the People. I have been bombed, and attempts have been made to murder me for having exercised said authority. I am entitled to statutory protections and the emoluments of the office. I receive no compensation, and the authority is not tenured.
To understand what Cole means, it’s important to understand the sovereign citizen movement’s beliefs. According to the SPLC, which tracks hate and extremist groups, sovereign citizens believe “the American government set up by the founding fathers… was secretly replaced by a new government system.” The specifics of the conspiracy vary, according to multiple watchdogs groups, but sovereign citizens consider many common government mechanisms — such as birth certificates and zip codes — as tools for enslaving the masses.
They fight against this perceived conspiracy in various ways, but one of the primary counterattacks is what has been described as “paper terrorism,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. They attempt to overwhelm the legal system with verbose, nonsensical or fraudulent filings. Cole’s apparent Google document cache could be considered an example of that tactic.
That’s the context in which Cole asserts his standing as a “statutory Attorney General of the United States.” He also points to a U.S. statute and U.S. Supreme Court case that define “attorney general” and invoke the concept of a “private attorney general,” respectively. The precise legal reasoning in Cole’s 2014 filing and in the 2007 case, reviewed by TPM, is not exactly clear.
But it’s also somewhat irrelevant, Ryan Lenz, senior writer at the SPLC, told TPM. Sovereign citizens are notorious for finding obscure pieces of U.S. law that feed their philosophy. They are also known for ascribing formal titles, such as ambassador to the United States or private postmaster general, to themselves.
“Sovereign citizens are studious. They do read documents from American antiquity passionately,” Lenz said. “Bu they’re not trained scholars. They don’t understand that American law is organic and it changes. What they’ll do is they’ll latch onto some principle or some legal precept … and declare that their reading of this is such, so this must be true and we’re being lied to.”
Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, explained that the claim of being a “statutory attorney general” is then an extension of the sovereign citizen’s anti-government worldview.
“Once you believe the government is illegitimate, it is only a short step to believing that you can make up any governmental or quasi-governmental thing yourself and have it be just as ‘legitimate’ as that of the de facto government,” Pitcavage told TPM. “It is what they do. They create bogus titles for themselves just as they create bogus entities, bogus liens, bogus financial instruments, bogus license plates and identification cards, and so forth.”