Editorial: Media object to widespread Bundy case secrecy

Three media organizations have filed an objection to a federal judge’s order to veil in sweeping secrecy documents and evidence in the Bundy case.

Earlier in July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen ordered all materials produced by the government in discovery in the case — grand jury transcripts, agency reports, witness statements, memoranda of interviews, documents and objects produced by the government — are to be confidential and anything filed court relating to these are to be automatically filed under seal.

She said this was being done to protect witnesses, victims, law enforcement, prosecutors and other government officials from being intimidated — mostly based on vague 2-year-old Internet postings that suggested certain people might come to harm.

Attorney Maggie McLetchie — who represents the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, this newspaper and The Associated Press — on Friday filed the 22-page objection, saying the secrecy order is excessive and unnecessary.

The Bundy case grows out of the April 2014 standoff between Bureau of Land Management law enforcement and armed supporters of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy had failed to pay grazing fees for 20 years and the BLM was attempting to roundup his cattle. The 19 defendants face felony charges that include conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault, which carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison.

The BLM eventually released the cattle rather than risk bloodshed.

McLetchie argues (specific cites omitted): “The Magistrate Judge noted that public access to discovery materials is more limited than to court proceedings. … However, in allowing the materials deemed ‘Confidential’ to be automatically filed under seal, the Court’s Protective Order essentially misapplied the lesser standard for access to criminal discovery to judicial filing. The law of this circuit and the common law ‘start with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records.’ … Given this presumption of public access, the Ninth Circuit ‘requires a party to make a particularized showing of good cause for each document it seeks to file under seal.’”

McLetchie notes that the rambling and ranting social media postings cited by the government as a rationale for secrecy are free speech, protected expression of frustration and not actual threats.

These included: “EVERYONE PLEASE CALL … They need to know that they are doing is NOT right and that we notices [sic] it and we are a shamed [sic] of them!” and “Sounds like to solve the problem a lqnd [sic] owner will, have to take out an AR 10 and put a bullet in -head to save the other land owners to stop this, if I had land. i will now, kniw [sic] who to shoot first….”

Rather than close off everything, the attorney suggests identifying information could be redacted.

McLetchie concludes: “Indeed, the magistrate judge’s protective order subverts longstanding presumptions that (1) court records are presumptively public, and (2) depriving the public of access to public records requires a careful balancing of the private and public interests at stake. Instead, with little in the way of good cause to support a protective order, the magistrate judge has mandated that all confidential documents attached to motions and pleadings must be filed under seal without requiring the filing party to show why sealing is necessary. This runs contrary to the Ninth Circuit and this Court’s law, and should not be the standard for filing documents and supporting discovery in this case.”

The public has a right to see whether justice is done from now until and through the trial scheduled for next February. Meanwhile, all the defendants are being held without bail. They and their attorneys should have a right to speak freely about their cases.

A version of this editorial appears in the print version of this week’s Mesquite Local News.

Protesters confront BLM agents near Bundy ranch. (Reuters photo via Newsweek)

Editorial: Judge rules Bundy case evidence will be cloaked in secrecy

That was a futile gesture.

A federal judge has rejected efforts by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Battle Born Media and The Associated Press to be privy to evidence provided to the defense attorneys for the 19 defendants accused in the armed standoff at the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville in April 2014, meaning that most evidence will remain veiled in secrecy until the trial next February.

The judge did state that information already in the public domain — such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube postings — could not be declared secret. The cat may not be put back in the bag, as one wag argued.

Bundy ranch standoff. (Reuters photo)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen wrote in her order this week, “All materials produced by the government in discovery in this case, including, but not limited to: grand jury transcripts, agency reports, witness statements, memoranda of interviews, and any documents and tangible objects produced by the government shall be treated as confidential documents. Information and documents in the public domain are not confidential documents.” Protective order 7-15

The judge warned that defense attorneys may not even share notes relating to the contents of discovery with anyone not employed to assist the defense, and anything filed in court relating to the discovery must be filed under seal.

Judge Leen based her ruling on the belief that, “The victims and witnesses in this case are vulnerable to cyberbullying, threatening communications, and intimidation from Bundy supporters who have demonstrated their ability to rapidly disseminate images and private information about victims and witnesses and encourage people to contact victims and witnesses. These tactics ‘have the potential to disrupt and prejudice the truth finding function of a trial by influencing potential witnesses or chilling their willingness to testify.’” Order 7-15

She determined this even though almost all of the 22 allegations of intimidation are two years old and nothing substantive has come of any of them.

The defendants face felony charges that include conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault, which carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison. The standoff occurred after armed Bureau of Land Management law enforcement agents attempted to roundup Cliven 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.

Armed Bundy supporters outnumbered the BLM agents 4-to-1, the court claims, and the agents eventually released the cattle and left to avoid potential bloodshed.

Attorney Maggie McLetchie, who represents the media in this case, told the Las Vegas newspaper after the recent ruling, “From the media’s perspective, the order still cloaks much of the information about this case in secrecy despite the heightened need for transparency the judge recognized when allowing the media to intervene. It is deeply troubling that so many documents will be automatically hidden from public view.”

The lack of public scrutiny means that any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that the public might shed light on will not come until the time of trial, when it might be too late.

One glaring example of this is the court’s continued referencing to the fact that a couple, Jared and Amanda Miller, who were at the Bundy ranch during the standoff latter ambushed and killed two Las Vegas police officers in a restaurant and “draped a Gadsen (sic) flag over one of the officers, and shouted to patrons that this was the start of ‘a revolution.’”

Never mind that it was a Gadsden flag, the court makes no mention of the fact the Bundy’s say they kicked the Millers off the ranch due to their left-wing radicalism.

In a motion filed in support of opening up discovery to the press and the public, McLetchie argued, “One of the most critical aspects of news reporting is to inform the public of justice being carried out in the courts. In this regard, the press is vital to the health of a democracy. … This right is anchored in the value of keeping ‘a watchful eye on the workings of public agencies,’ and in publishing ‘information concerning the operation of government.’ … ‘In short, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.’”

The attorney for at least one of the defendants plans to appeal the secrecy decision.

A version of this editorial appears this past 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.

Editorial: Bundy prosecutors should prove need for any secrecy

A  federal judge has granted the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Battle Born Media newspapers and The Associated Press the right to intervene in the criminal case involving the armed standoff at the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville two years ago in order to challenge an effort by the prosecution to keep virtually all evidence in the case veiled in secrecy until the trial next February.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen wrote, “As the Second Circuit has eloquently written, ‘[t]ransparency is pivotal to public perception of the judiciary’s legitimacy and independence.’ … Federal judges are not elected. We claim legitimacy not by election, but by reason. The Constitution grants the federal judiciary ‘neither force nor will, but merely judgment.’ The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). The Court finds that allowing intervention will promote transparency and the integrity of the judicial proceedings in this case. The Court will therefore grant the Amended Motion to Intervene for the limited purpose of opposing the Government’s Motion for Protective Order.” Bundy intervene order copy

The prosecutors, who opposed the media intervention, have asked that all evidence shared with the attorneys for the 19 defendants — including rancher Cliven Bundy and four of his sons — not be made public, claiming disclosure could jeopardize the safety of witnesses and prosecutors.

The defendants face felony charges that include conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault, which carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison. The charges grow out of the April 2014 standoff between self-styled militia and Bureau of Land Management law enforcement when the government tried 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. The BLM eventually released the cattle and left.

Cliven Bundy (R-J photo)

Among the reasons cited by Judge Leen in allowing the media intervention is the fact the indictment “followed a two-year investigation and a decades’ long series of disputes between Defendant Cliven Bundy and the federal government over land use restrictions and federal laws and regulations. Mr. Bundy’s co-defendants are his family and supporters. Defendants claim they were peacefully protesting government overreaching, some of them while exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Government claims Bundy and his co-defendants planned and led an armed assault to threaten, intimidate, and extort law enforcement officers from carrying out lawful orders of this Court. It has generated considerable public debate about the Constitutional role of the federal government in owning large amounts of land in the western United States.”

Attorney Maggie McLetchie, who represents the media in this case, told the Las Vegas newspaper, “We are very pleased that our concerns with the protective order will be considered by the court, and agree that transparency is especially important due to the nature of the Bundy case.”

In a motion filed with the court this past week McLetchie argued, “This overbroad and unsupported protective order impedes the rights of Intervenors and other news outlets to report on a case of local and national importance. One of the most critical aspects of news reporting is to inform the public of justice being carried out in the courts. In this regard, the press is vital to the health of a democracy. … This right is anchored in the value of keeping ‘a watchful eye on the workings of public agencies,’ and in publishing ‘information concerning the operation of government.’ … ‘In short, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.’” Bundy intervene memo

The right to intervene is merely the first step. Now the courts must do more than pay lip service to transparency. Though it may prove time-consuming, the prosecutors should now be required to provide specific reasons and proof — not just vague suspicions and speculation — that a particular piece of evidence, testimony or documentation should be kept from public scrutiny.

In her latest motion McLetchie quotes from a court case detailing this requirement, “‘The party opposing disclosure has the burden of proving good cause, which requires a showing that specific prejudice or harm will result if the protective order is not granted.’ … A party seeking a protective order must show ‘“that disclosure will result in a clearly defined, specific and serious injury.’”

A version of this editorial appears this past 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.

Bundy ranch standoff

Editorial: Bundy and his followers should get a speedy, public trial

Rancher Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and their 16 co-defendants in the April 2014 armed standoff with federal agents trying to round-up Bundy’s cattle should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but prosecuted under the full constraints of the U.S. Constitution.

This past week U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen set a trial date of Feb. 6 next year before Federal District Court Judge Gloria Navarro for the 19 defendants, all of whom are being held without bail pending that trial. The case was scheduled for trial on May 2.

Cliven Bundy at an event near his Bunkerville ranch a year ago. (R-J photo)

Judge Leen said it is a complex case and the “ends of justice” outweigh the interest of the public and the defendants in having a speedy trial. At a hearing the 69-year-old Bundy and most other defendants said they wanted to exercise their right to a speedy trial, according to press accounts.

Leen also told prosecutors and defense attorneys to confer to determine whether they could agree on a “stipulated protective order” that would keep secret from the public key evidence.

U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden promptly filed a motion seeking sweeping secrecy in order to “protect victims, witnesses, law enforcement officers, and agent/investigators associated with this case from threats, intimidation, and harassment from supporters of the Bundy defendants.” The bulk of his argument is that some unnamed people have posted strong language on the Internet. (motion for protective order)

As Claude Rains said in “Casablanca,” we are shocked — shocked — to find strong language on the Internet.

The defendants face felony charges that include conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault, which carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison.

Prosecutors have had two years to prepare their case for trial, why should it take another year and a shroud of secrecy?

The Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury … and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Keeping the defendants in prison for a year without the benefit of a conviction is hardly a speedy trial, nor does keeping evidence a secret constitute a public trial.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, Battle Born Media and The Associated Press filed a legal challenge this past week to the proposed protective order to keep evidence secret — a move reminiscent of the British Star Chamber the Founders found so repugnant. (BUNDY RJBBMAP secrecy)

The motion by attorney Maggie McLetchie says “the government’s protective order thwarts the public’s right to information about this case by depriving it of access to all documents produced by the government. Moreover, in its hubris, the government has failed to provide any good cause to do so.”

The attorney offered that, if prosecutors can confirm their “concerns for witness safety and security,” perhaps names and identifying information could be redacted but not the entire evidence.

Yes, Bundy and his followers in all likelihood broke numerous laws, but that is for a jury to decide in a speedy and public trial.

The government has had enough time to prepare its case and call its witnesses. Perhaps, May 2 was too soon since none of the attorneys for the defendants have yet been given the evidence and the names of witnesses who they must confront at trial, but that preparation should not take a year — especially since all of their clients are being held without bail.

The government should not be able to have it both ways — getting a lengthy delay while keeping not-yet-convicted suspects jailed and unable to provide for their families.

The Bureau of Land Management leaders were embarrassed when their army of heavily armed agents descended upon the ranch only to face a couple hundred  armed civilians and have to back down to avoid bloodshed.

The BLM bungled the round-up effort, but no one at the agency has yet been reviewed or held accountable for that.

The delay and the secrecy make this case look more like revenge than justice.

A version of this editorial appears this past 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.