Federalism on trial

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, along with his sons, Ammon and Ryan, and co-defendant Ryan Payne, are on trial in Las Vegas for their role in the April 2014 Bunkerville, Nevada standoff against the federal government for nonpayment of federal grazing fees.

The Bundy family’s Mormon belief underlies their protest. The Book of Mormon tells of heroes like Nephi and Captain Moroni who stood up to tyranny. In the late 1850s President Buchanan declared the Mormon church in rebellion against the United States, and he dispatched federal troops to Utah. The Utah War is the only time the United States government has attacked an organized religion.

The Bundy family is today’s lightning rod for the decades-long rebellion over federal ownership of most of the Western lands. The Bundy militia stood up to the world’s most powerful nation-state, in armed confrontation, to stop a judicially authorized seizure of property.

If the federal government convinces the jury to convict the Bundys, they will convict individual Americans not just for violations of statute but for religious and political beliefs and freedom of expression. No shots were fired. No one was hurt or killed in the standoff. Perhaps if Bundy’s militia had simply laid down in front of the cowboys who came to herd off their cattle they would inspire more sympathy. However, America was not founded by Gandhi, but by rednecks with guns and bibles who fought an empire for what they believed was rightfully theirs.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro was willing to let Cliven Bundy out of prison for the trial. Bundy refused her offer, preferring to appear in court in prison orange to show he is a political prisoner. The federal government controls about 85 percent of Nevada and more than 60 percent of Utah, Idaho and Alaska. Only a few states east of the Mississippi (Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire) have as much as 10 percent of their land controlled by the feds. The original colonies relinquished their public lands to the federal government.

President Trump went to Utah Dec. 4 to roll back President Obama’s executive order and release over two million acres taken under the federal Antiquities Act. Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments land, taken over the strenuous objection of the Utah Legislature, will be dramatically slashed. Trump loudly proclaimed he was protecting states rights, but like all politicians, and more so than most, the President revealed himself to be a showman who knows how to put on a photo op. Trump’s executive order overriding Obama’s executive order is cosmetic at best. He is merely transferring federal control of the monuments from the National Park Service back to the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service. Yes, it will make it easier for Utah to allow commercial and recreational exploitation of Grand Escalante, but it does not address the constitutional questions Cliven Bundy is raising at trial.

To do that, Trump would have to transfer ownership to Utah, or simply sell off the land, perhaps to education trusts, as was the traditional process of admitting a territory as a state. Native Americans complained they could not access their ancestral lands on Bears Ears, but Trump stopped short of transferring the land to tribal control. All the Great Orange did was return the land to its status quo federal control.

On Nov. 11 Judge Navarro indicated she might declare a mistrial due to defense motions arguing federal prosecutors have not turned over all the evidence to the defense. Juries have been acquitting or declaring mistrial in almost every trial of Bundy’s militia. Yet the feds refuse to listen to the people and continue to pursue criminal charges.