I have had this trouble with emacs 23, specifically, GNU Emacs 126.96.36.199 (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu, GTK+ Version 2.10.12) of 2007-08-04 on moonunit. This error does not happen with the following executables:
emacs-21 emacs-22 emacs-22-cvs
An error is already in the minibuffer when the program starts up.
With debug-on-error=1, got the following output from the
debugger when trying to access a file (.emacs.el) the first time for
this run. Frequently if I then try the same file again, all is well,
no such error.