We’re tempted to argue that Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his family have gotten the better of the federal government.
Except it seems more accurate to say that the federal government — and in particular its prosecutors — have again been at their worst when it comes to trying to hold the Bundys accountable in their high-profile tussle with the feds.
The latest embarrassment came Monday when Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed criminal charges against Cliven Bundy, his sons Ryan and Ammon, and Ryan Payne. Navarro’s decision came a few weeks after she declared a mistrial in the quartet’s trial in Las Vegas on charges stemming from an April 2014 standoff.
The judge chastised prosecutors for “willful” violations of due process, among them refusing to give certain evidence to the defendants’ lawyers.
This is what tennis players call an “unforced error.”
The botching of the Nevada trial happened about 15 months after a jury in Portland acquitted Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five other defendants on charges that they conspired to impede federal employees from during their job during the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.
The feds’ failure to convict the Bundys is especially galling because in both the 2016 Oregon and 2014 Nevada incidents, the basic circumstances were beyond dispute.
Indeed, both episodes were heavily publicized across the country.
In the Nevada trial the prosecutorial bungling was procedural — failing to turn over evidence to the defense is such a blatant violation of the defendants’ rights that the judge had little choice but to end the trial.
The bigger problem in the Malheur Refuge trial is that prosecutors charged the defendants with criminal conspiracy, a notoriously difficult crime to prove because it requires evidence not only of what the defendants did, but of how they conspired together.
Although the Bundys are by far the most visible defendants in both the Oregon and Nevada incidents, so far only the lesser-known participants in the Malheur Refuge takeover have been punished.
Eleven people — including Payne, the Bundys’ co-defendant in Nevada — pleaded guilty to conspiring to impede federal employees during the Malheur Refuge takeover. And in March 2017 a jury in Portland found two other defendants guilty of that charge.
The Bundys’ supporters naturally see the family’s string of legal victories as vindication that they’re victims of an oppressive federal government.
In the case of the Nevada mistrial, that’s a plausible argument.
But otherwise the claim strikes us as hollow. To describe the Bundys as innocent victims requires not credulity so much as a deliberate refusal to recognize reality.
After all, 11 people who were with Ammon and Ryan Bundy at the Malheur Refuge pleaded guilty to the same crime for which the brothers were acquitted. And two others were found guilty by a jury.
The 2014 standoff with BLM law enforcement agents that prompted the charges in Nevada happened in part because Cliven Bundy had run his cattle, without a permit, on public land for 20 years. And unlike the vast majority of ranchers, he refused to pay grazing fees.
The Bundys’ legal record is unblemished, but we hardly see them as heroes in the campaign for reasonable management of federal land. We have vastly more respect for people who pay their fees and who don’t deprive the public access to our land.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.