There’s been lots of handwringing about a federal jury’s conviction a few weeks ago of Kentucky salve maker Sam Girod. A miscarriage of justice, say some. Impeach the judge, say others. Prosecutors are the lowest of low-lifes, say still others. (Maybe on a par with journalists?)
There’s no question the possibility that Sam Girod might spend the rest of his life in jail is a terrible tragedy. But his conviction and jailing points up some inconsistencies and misconceptions about how we can best confront crazy regulation of food and other natural products. Please bear with me as I assess the situation, because I’m going to say some things that some may find unpleasant, even repugnant.
First, to suggest that Sam Girod, who chose to represent himself in a jury trial, bears no responsibility for his plight is to be in denial. It was Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president and a self-trained lawyer, who stated the problem this way: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” (Sam Girod’s many supporters are now promoting a petition campaign in search of a presidential pardon.)
The problem extends beyond Sam Girod’s personal tragedy. Several Amish producers of food and health products have compounded their legal problems by refusing to engage competent legal assistance, and the ripple effects of their cases are serious.
Where they get seriously led astray is with the so-called Sovereign Citizen defense. I’ve seen at least four producers try to use it, relying on various interpretations of common law, and each failed miserably. Some of you may recall the case of Dan Allgyer, the Amish farmer who tried to defend himself with the SC argument against a federal injunction filing by the FDA and U.S. Justice Department for shipping raw milk across state lines. Also, James Stewart, the Rawesome Food Club owner in Los Angeles. And now Sam Girod. All rolled the dice with the oracles of SC arguments, paid big dollars for the privilege, and all failed miserably. James Stewart even got to spend four months in jail, till he finally came to understand that only a real lawyer could get him out.
In shooting their wad on the SC defense, not only did these individuals lose their cases, but they helped create serious legal barriers for the rest of us. Government lawyers have already been using Dan Allgyer’s legal setbacks as precedent in arguing against food rights. These legal precedents can be used for years and years, until they are overruled. But getting existing legal precedent overruled just means climbing an even higher wall.
Second, Sam Girod could have had very good legal representation. He had a lawyer he fired; supposedly he became upset because the lawyer mentioned a plea-bargain agreement as one way to settle his case. The lawyer would have taken the case to trial if that was what Sam wanted. He was just presenting Sam with his options, as a good lawyer should do. If Sam was concerned about the money for legal fees, there is no doubt his many supporters out in Facebook and Twitter lands could have raised enough to provide a very adequate defense. He apparently wasn’t comfortable, for religious and other reasons of principle, with going the “English” way. That is his right, but if you’re going to take that right, understand that your decision has lots of ripple effects, beginning with your own freedom; Sam won’t be sentenced for a couple months, but he could well be sentenced to 20 or more years in jail based on the felony offenses he was convicted of.
Those of us who are frustrated with such decisions by Dan Allgyer, Sam Girod, and others need not just stand by and steam or vent at the system. We need to understand that while we can’t force Sam to violate his own religious and ethical beliefs, we can look out for our own rights, in the process helping the Amish avoid legal pitfalls.
I wrote some months ago about the Real Food Consumer Coalition, and its efforts to represent those consumers seeking to exercise their right to private food. RFCC’s first case has involved the government’s effort to push Pennsylvania farmer Amos Miller out of business. RFCC raised about $27,000, and over the last the last six months, has been working behind the scenes to ensure that Miller is able to continue producing food for his members. RFCC has obtained input from three different lawyers to help look after private food rights. I can’t provide all the details yet, since the Miller case hasn’t been finally decided. But I can say that RFCC has played an important role in ensuring that he is still here producing the wonderful food many depend on him for.
Miller has gone through the process familiar to other Amish farmers, of representing himself and spending serious money on the Sovereign Citizen advisers who lurk in many places around Amish producers. But he has also been able to draw on RFCC’s expertise, and for that reason he may come out of this serious legal case in one piece.
I understand that a big part of the challenge confronting Sam Girod, Amos Miller, and other Amish, is the influence of Big Ag and Big Pharma in trying to shut down competitors. I also understand that America’s legal system, with its dependence on expensive lawyers to help defendants get a fair shake, isn’t the optimum system. It’s inefficient, complicated, capricious, and extremely expensive. It’s sometimes said America has the best system of justice money can buy. But it’s the system we have, based on a founding principle that we are a nation of laws, and that legal principles are more supportive of a democratic system than the arbitrary prejudices of politicians and tyrants. No Amish farmer or salve maker is going to change that reality.
RFCC is seeking to work within the system of here and and now, and in that context, it offers the best chance of keeping Amish producers out of trouble. It needs your help to continue its efforts on behalf of Amos Miller and others to make regulators think twice about whether the Amish are such easy legal pickings.
RFCC is seeking to expand its efforts to protect the interests of private food organizations and the farmers who supply them. It has some super-creative approaches in the works, which I’ll be writing about upcoming. They all involve using the existing regulatory and legal systems to help further our cause. In that way, consumers who value the good products the Amish specialize can get what they need, and the Amish can do what they do best, away from legal tripwires.
Editor’s note: The contempt-of-court proceeding instituted against Amos Miller more than seven months ago was officially “settled” last week in U.S. District Court. The court ended the proceeding at the behest of Miller and his lawyer, Joseph Macaluso, after Miller late last year agreed to provide records of his members, with their names and other personal information redacted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is understood to be in the process of completing its inspections of Miller’s farm, and the agency’s possible actions against the farm are still unknown.