By Michael E. Miller
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Four months later an angry debtor stormed into Blake's office and punched him. According to Blake, although he was in "a semidazed condition" he fired a revolver at the floor to scare the guy off. The bullet ricocheted and hit the man in the heel. Blake was arrested and later convicted of aggravated assault. To this day he blames his conviction on an inept defense attorney, a corrupt judge, and that overzealous prosecutor -- though he can't remember whether this prosecutor actually handled his case.
Blake served a five-year sentence in Raiford, near Gainesville. He doesn't talk much about this stretch except to note that his disability did not excuse him from the toughest jobs in the joint, including cutting wood. By the time he got out in 1965, Blake says he weighed 114 pounds and was badly dehydrated. He recovered, but as an ex-con he had a hard time persuading anyone to hire him. So Blake changed his name to Joseph A. Blaine, a name he would use for the next two decades.
He also decided, in the interest of avoiding further legal depredations, to become a lawyer. He earned an associate in arts from Miami-Dade Junior College in 1969, then started undergraduate work at the University of Miami in 1970, planning to go on to law school. He says injuries from a car crash kept him out of school for several months and derailed his legal ambitions.
Blake then decided to pursue real estate, buying distressed properties cheap and fixing them up for resale. He had, he says, amassed fourteen properties by 1977, when he then went into hotel operation. "Joseph Blaine" signed a lease with an option to buy the Willard Garden Hotel at 124 NE Fourteenth St. in Overtown. He says he "kicked the beer bums out of there," replaced the missing sinks and toilets, and instituted a strict security policy: no ID, no admittance.
Blake's account of what happened next is long and involved. The gist of it is that his financing collapsed; Blake claims this failure was engineered by an attorney in cahoots with one of his investors, who wanted to take over the business. After more than five years managing the Willard Garden, Blake was forced to declare bankruptcy and give up his stake in the property, as well as in the others he owned.
Blake sued People's Downtown National Bank, where he kept his corporate account, claiming they had used false information to freeze his account. When he lost that suit, Blake sued his own lawyer and appealed the case against the bank to the Third District Court of Appeal.
One lawyer-related frustration piled on top of the other. "I called anywhere from 1300 to 1500 lawyers, all the way to Jacksonville, and they were gung ho," Blake says in reference to his suit against the bank. "'A bank? Hey, that's deep pockets. They froze your account? False information?' Then when they found out that an attorney was the main instigator of the situation, that was it. That is when I turned sour on the legal profession."
In dealing with the case and with his bankruptcy, Blake began spending time in law libraries. He struck up friendships and correspondences with anti-lawyer activists in South Florida and beyond. Having supplied T-shirts and bumper stickers to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach, he later began printing up shirts with assorted lawyer-bashing slogans: Restore the Constitution, Don't Vote for Lawyers, Justice for Sale, and Robbed by Judge or Lawyer? Use the Constitutional Common Law Court.
This last exhortation refers to a case that has made headlines recently. A landlord by the name of Emilio Ippolito owned some $20 million worth of property in the Tampa Bay area. The property deteriorated; local officials cited Ippolito for code violations, slapping liens on his properties, which were seized.
Furious at the treatment he'd received from the judicial system, Ippolito in 1992 formed his Constitutional Common Law Court of We the People. Ippolito was the judge of this court, which he claimed to be legitimate under the U.S. Constitution. During its four years of operation, the "court" handled various small-claims cases. But its primary raison d'etre was to hound the officials he blamed for his losses. He sent them a series of motions, letters, and arrest warrants, some of which charged the officials with treason. At least one missive pointed out that this crime was punishable by hanging. In March 1996 Ippolito, his daughter, and several others were arrested on federal charges of threatening judges. (They were convicted last year and are currently in jail awaiting sentencing.)
As Blake's activism heated up, he got wind of the common law court and soon became a devoted acolyte of Ippolito. The two men met during an abortive effort to launch a similar court in Palm Beach. Blake estimates he has sent $8000 to help support Ippolito's family. And he responded to the court's closure by firing up his fax machine. "I faxed over 700 underground organizations, patriotic movements," Blake recounts. "Now you know why I'm on the shit list of the legal profession."
Shit list or no, Blake has shown no signs of withdrawing from the fray. He is currently the plaintiff in two other cases: one against Public Storage for burglaries and damage to property he had stored there; a second against his former residence, the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens, stemming from a wrangle over a co-op he had been leasing with an option to buy.