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The Bundys go on trial

Following Oregon occupation and Nevada standoff, a family that refuses to accept the federal government will have its day in court.

 

This Wednesday, September 7, marks the start of the trial of brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and six other defendants charged for their actions during the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, earlier this year. The case is the first to bring the Bundy family and their supporters before a courtroom and jury after they were at the center of two volatile standoffs with the federal government.

The Bundy family first gained attention in April 2014 when Cliven Bundy, Ryan and Ammon’s father, forced a showdown with federal officials at his Nevada ranch after the government announced it would seize his cattle for his decades-long refusal to pay public-land grazing fees. The Bundys called on militia members and anti-government extremists to support their crusade, leading to an episode where 400 armed supporters intimidated federal agents tasked with confiscating Cliven’s livestock into abandoning the job and leaving.

His sons renewed their defiance at the start of 2016, occupying the Malheur refuge. The takeover began as a protest of two local ranchers’ prison sentences for arson on Bureau of Land Management land but developed into a weeks-long rally of roughly 25 to 40 people calling for the seizure of federally managed lands across the West to be given to states, counties or private landowners. Even without support from the jailed ranchers and many locals in Harney County, the armed occupiers lingered, controlled access to the refuge, and made use of government offices, computers and vehicles. The occupation wound down only after state police shot and killed one of the leaders, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, while apprehending the Bundy brothers and others during a January 26 highway blockade.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/48.1/photos-from-the-oregon-refuge-standoff-Hammonds-Burns]

Cliven Bundy was then arrested in early February at the Portland airport while traveling to support the last of the Malheur occupiers.

When we last left the Bundy posse, the federal government had charged 26 individuals who took part in the Malheur occupation and 19 people, including Cliven Bundy, involved in the 2014 Nevada showdown. Cliven Bundy, who isn’t charged in relation to the Malheur occupation, is currently in jail and awaiting trial scheduled for February 2017.

So far, 11 Malheur defendants have pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to impede federal employees at the Malheur wildlife refuge through intimidation, threats or force. Some of those individuals may be called as cooperating witnesses by the government, but the U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on trial strategy. Corey Lequieu, the first defendant to be sentenced, received a two and a half year prison term plus probation and restitution. The eight Malheur defendants who will step into court this week have entered not guilty pleas and could each face up to 20 years in prison plus fines, not including charges the brothers and some defendants face from the Nevada indictment. Another seven Malheur defendants are part of a separate trial also set for next February.

“The case against the Bundys is pretty substantial,” says Ryan Lenz, writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center and its Hatewatch blog, which monitors hate groups, militias and anti-government activities. “The real questions at the heart of this trial is what kind of antics will happen and what respect and deference will they give to the court.”

The latest booking photographs of Ammon Bundy, left, and Ryan Bundy.
Multnomah County Sheriff

Ammon Bundy’s attorney has asked the court to allow an “adverse possession” defense. That argument alleges the occupiers intended to take possession of the refuge through lawful protest “regarding the treatment of the Hammonds (Oregon ranchers jailed for arson) and the larger issues presented — i.e., the need to constrain the federal government to its constitutional limits regarding property ownership.” A judge has dismissed the argument as implausible since adverse possession doesn’t apply to the federal government. Even staunch property-rights advocates are perplexed at the strategy.

“The adverse possession argument is nonsense,” says James Burling, litigation director for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a “freedom-based public interest” law firm that has intervened on behalf of ranchers in other cases against the government but is not involved with the Bundy trials. “There are lawful ways of trying to get relief but I cannot see anything analogous to simply taking over a federal wildlife refuge. There’s no legal justification for that.”

“We really understand that ranchers have legitimate concerns that they are essentially being driven off the land, and that they consider themselves to be an endangered species,” Burling continues. “What the Bundys did is the complete opposite of the way of doing things, and I don’t think it garnered them any nationwide sympathy (from ranchers and others). There’s probably a lot of people saying, yeah, I understand their frustration but this is only going to make things worse because it makes us look like a bunch of fools.”

The Bundys, however, haven’t backed away from their radical, anti-government attitudes during roughly seven months in an Oregon jail. Instead, they have pursued a steady stream of pretrial hijinks and far-fetched motions and filings.

To recap, a few notably peculiar incidents:

  • Throughout the summer, Ryan Bundy and fellow defendant Ken Medenbach, both representing themselves in court, filed repeated motions denying the federal court’s authority and jurisdiction in the case and questioning U.S. District Judge Anna Brown’s “oath of office,” claiming charges against them should just be dropped. Another codefendant Shawna Cox, under house arrest in Utah, made similar allegations. A judge agreed that Cox could represent herself at trial, but called Cox’s lack-of-jurisdiction argument “legal garbage,” and said if she shared her “screwball views” and “horribly distorted view of the law” with jurors, she'd be held in contempt and put in jail.
  • Unrelenting, in late July, Ryan Bundy bizarrely declared he is an “idiot of the ‘Legal Society’” and “incompetent,” and a sovereign citizen of “bundy society” not subject to federal laws. In a rambling filing, filled with Bible passages, Bundy declared Oregon, Nevada and the Malheur refuge are “NOT ‘in the United States,’” and wrote “I believe i am entitled to eight hundred million ($800,000,000.00) USD in maximum cure and maintenance required to restore i to the wholeness i enjoyed prior to being taken and carried away….”
  • In August, Ryan Bundy scuffled with deputies at the jail when they tried to handcuff him to take him out of jail for undisclosed reasons. Bundy and his supporters claim the deputies were planning to forcibly remove metal fragments lodged in his shoulder, which Bundy says is proof of an unaccounted-for bullet that struck him during the January 26 police encounter when Finicum was shot. Bundy alleges the bullet in his shoulder was fired by FBI agents also on the scene and later announced he would not have the fragments surgically removed since he doesn’t trust the government to preserve the objects. He plans to use the fragments as evidence in a civil case against the government.
  • A few weeks before the trial, Ryan Bundy subpoenaed Oregon Governor Kate Brown, and Oregon’s U.S. senators to appear at his trial, claiming the governor was “actively managing the law enforcement response to the occupation.” Judge Anna Brown rejected Ryan Bundy’s subpoenas, and said his “open defiance” of the court’s authority and his ongoing “serious and obstructionist misconduct” are cause to reconsider his right to represent himself. She relented, however, and said she will give “the benefit of the doubt” to Bundy and Medenbach to adhere to her instructions in the courtroom.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/48.5/the-darkness-at-the-heart-of-malheur]

All those episodes suggest the upcoming trial will be an unpredictable affair with a good amount of gaveling and a decent chance of some contempt-of-court rulings. But it may also prove to be the last stand for a family that has become the face of the West’s anti-government angst and the movement to transfer federal lands to states that has swelled in recent years.

“The Bundy family and their outlandish opinions on American democracy and American public lands will no doubt be on display during this trial,” says Greg Zimmerman, of the progressive research group Center for Western Priorities. “But let's not lose sight of the fact that the Bundys have continued to receive support from elected officials.”

“The reality is the history of this family’s engagement with the federal government is not a laughing matter,” adds Lenz. “It’s a serious safety concern.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.