Newspaper column: Bundy lawsuit addresses public land ownership

A civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy in state district court asks the court to declare that the public land on which Bundy grazes his cattle is owned by Nevada and Clark County, not the federal government.

The chances of success are most likely slim and none, but the suit raises some salient points about the power of the federal bureaucracy to hold sway over more than 85 percent of the land in Nevada.

Bundy and his sons are notorious for the 2014 armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents who attempted to confiscate his cattle for his failure to pay $1 million in grazing fees and fines over two decades. Federal criminal charges against the remaining defendants in that case were dismissed when the judge ruled the prosecution failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defendants.

Cliven Bundy (R-J pix)

The civil lawsuit — drafted by Larry Klayman, often described as an activist right-wing lawyer and founder of Judicial Watch, and Craig Mueller, who earlier this year lost a primary bid for attorney general — cites court cases, U.S. and Nevada constitutional history, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which Mexico ceded much of the West to the United States and legislative proclamations.

The suit notes the state Legislature has never consented to allow the U.S. government to own more than 85 percent of the land within the state’s borders.

When the Constitution was being drafted James Madison raised concerns about giving Congress too much power to purchase land in the states, saying “that this power might be made use of to enslave any particular state by buying up its territory, and that the strongholds proposed would be a means of awing the state into an undue obedience to the general government.”

Constitutional Convention delegate Rufus King moved to add the phrase “by consent of the legislature of the state” to the section that mentioned the federal government owning forts, docks and “other needful Buildings.” It passed unanimously. With the exception of the Nevada Test Site, few of the federal land holdings in Nevada have been with the consent of the Legislature.

Bundy’s suit further explains the intent of a section of the Nevada Constitution known as the Disclaimer Clause that said the state does “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

Klayman and Mueller write, “The intent of the Territorial Legislature was not to ceed (sic) the land to the US Government ‘forever’, but to clear title of all unappropriated lands within the Territory so U.S. Congress could dispose of the lands to the State of Nevada.”

Which is probably why the admission document promised 5 percent of the proceeds to Nevada when land would be “sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said state into the Union …”

In fact, though the suit doesn’t mention it, that so-called Disclaimer Clause was repealed by the voters in 1996, “effective on the date Congress consents to amendment or a legal determination is made that such consent is not necessary …” Might the court make such a legal determination? Doubtful.

The lawsuit also mentions a section of Nevada Revised Statutes 321 that declared, “The State of Nevada has a legal claim to the public land retained by the Federal Government within Nevada’s borders because: … The intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States was to guarantee to each of the states sovereignty over all matters within its boundaries except for those powers specifically granted to the United States as agent of the states. … The purported right of ownership and control of the public lands within the State of Nevada by the United States is without foundation and violates the clear intent of the Constitution of the United States.”

Not only has the Legislature not consented, it has vehemently protested.

The lawsuit points out on four occasions that the Bundy ranch has been in existence for 141 years, during which it has held water, grazing and property rights, adding that Bundy “has suffered substantial injury, as his cattle are his only source of income … (and) is entitled to declaratory judgment that the lands upon which he and his family have conducted its ranching, The Bundy Ranch, for generations is property belonging to the People of Nevada and its subdivision, Clark County …”

The suit raises some serious questions.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Is Nevada being unconstitutionally awed into obedience to the feds?

Over the years the battle to grant states greater control over the vast swath of federal public land have ebbed and flowed. There have been court battles, mostly lost. There have been legislative resolutions and bills, mostly ignored, as well as numerous congressional hearings and testimony.

More recently there have been instances of civil disobedience at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon that have resulted in dozens of federal indictments for conspiracy and assault.

All for naught. To this day the federal agencies control 50 percent of the land in the West and 85 percent of Nevada.

But Ruby Valley cattle rancher Clifford Gardner may have unearthed an overlooked aspect of the U.S. Constitution that speaks to the core issue.

Clifford Gardner (Elko Daily Free Press photo)

Gardner is intimately familiar with the legal and moral arguments, having waged his own losing court battle over federal land grazing rights, or the lack thereof.

In 1992, a fire burned two of Gardner’s allotments. The Forest Service told him to not graze in 1993 and 1994, but Gardner turned out cattle in the spring of 1994.

The legal battle ended with a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997, saying, “Gardners contend that, while the United States may have received the land in question from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States was entitled only to hold the land in trust for the creation of future states, and was not authorized to retain the land for its own purposes. After Nevada became a state, Gardners argue, all of the public lands within the state boundaries reverted to the state of Nevada.”

The liberal court dismissed that claim out of hand, saying “all nongranted lands previously held by the Government of Mexico passed into the federal public domain.”

It also dismissed his argument that all states are supposed to be admitted to the Union on an equal footing with the original states. The judges said the Equal Footing Doctrine only applies to political standing and sovereignty, not economic equality.

The court held that the Property Clause gives Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

Another section of the Constitution states that Congress has exclusive authority “over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings …”

“What I’ve learned is that when they wrote that clause into the Constitution that during discussion they said very clearly that their greatest fear was that should the federal government ever own vast amounts of land in a state it would awe the state into obedience,” Gardner said in a recent interview. “That argument, original intent, I would call it, has never been presented either back in Sagebrush Rebellion I or Sagebrush Rebellion II. So I feel that is quite important.”

Gardner spells out his arguments in a 46-page white paper that he hands out when speaking to groups on this land issue.

As the nation expanded and acquired more unappropriated lands, Gardner explains, it was the practice that the government would dispose of the land, but as time went on this became less the case.

“Over the years, as I come back and look at this, I come to realize we had a lot more good arguments against the federal government’s continued control of these lands,” Gardner says, noting that one of them is how federal agencies can claim so much of the land in Nevada and not afford people their constitutional rights?

Gardner relates that James Madison wrote in 1787 that Elbridge Gerry raised concerns about giving Congress exclusive power over purchased lands, saying “that this power might be made use of to enslave any particular state by buying up its territory, and that the strongholds proposed would be a means of awing the state into an undue obedience to the general government.”

Delegate Rufus King moved to add the phrase “by consent of the legislatureof the state.” It passed unanimously.

So, if the drafters of the Constitution deemed it necessary to prevent Congress exerting undue influence by purchasing land, is it any less undue influence by retaining 85 percent of the land in a given state?

With the exception of the Nevada Test Site, few of the federal land acquisitions have been with the consent of the Legislature.

A version of this column appeared a year ago in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.