Justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done.
The wheels of justice continue to grind in the federal criminal case against Cliven Bundy, four of his sons and a dozen co-defendants over the April 2014 armed standoff with federal agents trying to confiscate Bundy’s cattle at his Bunkerville ranch. All of the defendants have been jailed for more than a year.
The standoff occurred after armed Bureau of Land Management agents attempted to roundup Bundy’s cattle after he had refused for 20 years to pay grazing fees in the Gold Butte area. The BLM said he owed $1 million in fees and penalties.
Faced with armed protesters the BLM agents eventually released the cattle and left to avoid potential bloodshed.
Much of the evidence in the high-profile case remains cloaked in secrecy due to a blanket court protective order that requires just about everything filed in the case must be filed under seal.
But the press — specifically the Las Vegas daily newspaper, this newspaper and The Associated Press — continue to fight for openness. Just this past week attorney Maggie McLetchie filed a writ with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking that the veil of secrecy be lifted, because it “is anathema to the First Amendment” and longstanding court precedent from the 9th Circuit itself.
McLetchie argues, among other things, that much of the rationale for keeping material secret is merely to protect government agents from legitimate criticism of their conduct. She also says the protective order is based on “speculation and scaremongering” supported almost entirely by a series of years-old online social media posts.
Since the arrests of most of the defendants back in February 2016, things have not gone swimmingly for the government.
Two of Bundy’s sons, who had been arrested on separate but similar charges of illegally occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge to protest the jailing of father and son ranchers under a terrrorism law for letting fires get out of control and burn a few acres of federal public land, were acquitted of those charges this past fall by a jury, along with their co-defendants.
In April, the first of three scheduled trials for the Bunkerville defendants — charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy, extortion, assault and impeding federal officers — ended in a mistrial. The jury found only two of six people on trial guilty of some charges but deadlocked on the others. The jurors agreed to convict on only 10 of the 60 charges brought. None of the conspiracy charges stuck.
In January, the Interior Department’s Inspector General released a 16-page investigative report outlining misconduct and ethical violations by the BLM agent who supervised the Bundy cattle roundup. The report never named the agent but said he abused his powers by obtaining preferential treatment for family and friends at the 2015 Burning Man event on BLM land, misused BLM personnel and equipment, improperly intervened in hiring a BLM agent and attempted to influence an employee’s testimony during the Inspector General’s investigation of him.
News accounts identify the agent as Dan Love.
McLetchie noted that the misconduct allegations add fuel to the “general public’s concern that the government mishandled the investigation in this case.”
Her writ quotes from a 9th Circuit ruling from 1983 in which The Associated Press sought information about a criminal case. The court stated there “can be little dispute that the press and public have historically had a common law right of access to most pretrial documents. … Moreover, pretrial documents, such as those dealing with the question whether [a defendant] should be incarcerated prior to trial and those containing allegations by [a defendant] of government misconduct, are often important to a full understanding of the way in which ‘the judicial process and the government as a whole are functioning.’”
Seems on point for the Bundy case.
The defendants from the first Bundy trial are to be retried in late June on the same day Cliven Bundy, his sons and others were scheduled for trial. The court has yet to say what the schedule will be for the long-jailed remaining defendants.
The court needs to shine more light on this case so the public can see whether justice is being done.
A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.