It took too long, but our legal system delivered a blow for justice this month when a federal judge in Nevada dismissed charges against rancher Cliven Bundy, his two sons and a fourth man.
The government alleged they led an armed rebellion against the United States, charging them with conspiracy, extortion, using firearms in the commission of crimes, assault, threatening federal officers and other felonies.
But U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed the charges, citing “outrageous” misconduct by federal prosecutors that “violated due process rights.”
In an unusual step, Navarro read her order from the bench, taking a half-hour for a point-by-point account of government misconduct. At the heart of the outrage was the prosecution’s willful withholding of critical evidence that could have proven the defendants guiltless. Navarro said the prosecution committed an “intentional abdication of its responsibility.”
To ensure fairness in our justice system, the government is required to disclose exculpatory evidence that may be helpful to the defense. That prosecutors ignored this bedrock principle is abhorrent.
Among the evidence that might have helped the defense were records of government surveillance at the Bundy ranch, information about the presence of government snipers, FBI logs about activity at the ranch in the days before the 2014 standoff, and law enforcement assessments saying the Bundys posed no threat of violence.
Also excluded were internal reports from the Bureau of Land Management. Special Agent Larry Wooten wrote that he “routinely observed…a widespread pattern of bad judgment, lack of discipline, incredible bias, unprofessionalism and misconduct” by federal agents at the standoff. Wooten also said federal agents used excessive force, violated civil rights and committed ethical violations.
Rather than disclose that evidence as required by law, the prosecution taunted the defense for seeking the BLM’s internal affairs report, calling it a “bright shiny object…that did not exist.” Navarro noted that prosecutors had willfully mocked the defense for making a basic request to ensure fairness and justice.
I’ve been so troubled by the prosecutions that in September I contacted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I both wrote and spoke to Sessions, urging him to review a letter signed by 53 current and former members of the Idaho Legislature. The legislators had expressed serious concerns about the treatment of four Idahoans facing trial in connection with the standoff, including Ammon Bundy, who was among those covered by Judge Navarro’s dismissal.
“There is a strong possibility that a miscarriage of justice is being committed,” I wrote, asking Sessions to ensure that defendants be treated fairly. In December, Sessions opened an inquiry into the prosecutors’ actions. I welcome that investigation.
Congress will also hold the BLM accountable. I am a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has asked the BLM director to address the Bundy case and to how to restore trust in the agency’s ability to effectively enforce the law on federal land. In Idaho, the BLM manages about 22 percent of the land. It’s vital that Idahoans working and recreating on those lands have confidence that they are treated fairly.
We must learn from this horrible example of bad faith and take steps to ensure that such misconduct isn’t repeated. And we must never shy from the principle that civil liberties are absolutely fundamental to our constitutional form of government.