CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- A black activist who says he took control over one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi groups was barred Thursday from participating on the group's behalf in a federal lawsuit over the violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally in Virginia.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Hoppe ruled that James Hart Stern cannot represent the National Socialist Movement because he is not an attorney and didn't comply with the court's order to hire one. Instead, the magistrate is allowing a lawyer based in Burke, Virginia, to represent the neo-Nazi group and its longtime leader, Jeff Schoep.
Schoep has claimed Stern essentially tricked him into transferring leadership. Stern said he wanted to use his position as the group's president and director to undermine its defense against the lawsuit filed over bloodshed at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"My goal is to shut it down," he said Thursday.
Stern had asked the federal court in Virginia to issue a judgment against the NSM before the case is tried. Now he says he is pursuing other ways to put the Detroit-based group out of business. Stern sued Schoep and three other group leaders last month in Riverside, Calif., court records show.
Stern filed the suit himself, without an attorney. It seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and asks the court to bar Schoep and others from interfering with Stern's efforts to maintain NSM websites.
Neither Schoep nor his attorney, W. Edward ReBrook IV, immediately responded to phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
In a March 18 email to the magistrate judge, ReBrook said Stern is not, "in my legal opinion and in operational fact," in any way affiliated with the National Socialist Movement.
"He is not a named defendant, is not the president of NSM, has never been a member of NSM, and does not speak for NSM," ReBrook wrote, adding that his client plans to file counterclaims against Stern.
Michigan corporate records show Stern replaced Jeff Schoep as the group's leader in January. However, corporate records that Schoep signed in March name a different president.
In a phone interview last month, Schoep said he already was preparing to step down as the group's leader when Stern persuaded him hand over its reins in an effort to reduce the party's legal liability.
"He has that piece of paper, but he is absolutely not recognized as the leader of the National Socialist Movement," Schoep said of Stern.
NSM members used to attend rallies and protests in full Nazi uniforms, including at a march in Toledo, Ohio, that sparked a riot in 2005. More recently, Schoep tried to rebrand the group and appeal to a new generation of racists and anti-Semites by getting rid of such overt displays of Nazi symbols.
Stern served a prison sentence for mail fraud at the same facility as onetime Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted in the "Mississippi Burning" killings of three civil rights workers. Killen died in January 2018.
In 2012, Stern claimed Killen signed over to him power of attorney and ownership of 40 acres of land while they were serving prison terms together. A lawyer for Killen asked a judge to throw out the land transfer and certify that Killen and his family owned the property.
Associated Press reporter Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, Calif., contributed to this report.