Dismissal of federal criminal charges against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy will almost certainly result in more trouble. How well or poorly it ends will depend on whether the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. attorneys manage to learn from the shellacking they just received.
Most Americans have little sympathy for Bundy, his family and supporters. He might like to think of himself as a folk hero, but his hidebound refusal to abide by longstanding cattle-grazing rules placed innocent lives in danger, degraded public lands around his ranch and made a mockery of the law.
As one letter writer observed about the trial outcome, “I kind of thought things were pretty good in the old days when people were honest and did not pull high-powered weapons on law enforcement agents. Now they even get away with it.”
The Bundys clearly do not exist in the same U.S. West as the one portrayed on the TV Cartwright family’s Ponderosa. Its manly men supported law and order. By wantonly claiming public land is theirs to take, in the fictional universe of “Bonanza” the Bundys would only be good for an episode or two illustrating the many annoying downsides of having lousy neighbors.
However, even annoying anti-government bumpkins have a valid right to expect prosecutors to obey the rules of evidence. Judge Gloria Navarro was right to decide that by withholding evidence useful to the defense, prosecutors bungled their case beyond possibility of repair. It was so bad, the judge in effect awarded the game to the Bundys by default. This outcome should be a career-ending mistake for whomever was responsible in the U.S. Justice Department. Coupled with the earlier court loss in Oregon for the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, these prosecutors have shown they are the gang that can’t shoot straight.
This is most unfortunate. Emboldened by their twin victories, not only the Bundys but others who share their views will be emboldened. It is easily possible to imagine scenarios in which others will see fit to treat land that belongs to all Americans as private property, and then forcefully resist when the law comes to call. Such conflicts create great potential for injuries and deaths, like that of LaVoy Finicum during the Malheur standoff.
It doesn’t take a talented investigator to uncover plenty of resentment in the interior West toward the Bureau of Land Management. Although it has many dedicated and hard-working employees, its direction is whipsawed by political whims. It often is in the automatically unpopular role of mall cop or playground attendant as westerners recreate and go about their business out in our nation’s wide-open spaces. The key word is “our.” The lands that the Bundys and others covet belong to all of us, and are not to be fenced off or overgrazed. We citizens care less about the BLM’s popularity than about its continuing ability to do its job.
With erratic amateurs currently controlling the main levers of government power, it is up to the everyday professionals of the BLM and the Justice Department to get up in the mornings, and calmly go about their jobs in evenhanded and uninflammatory ways. They must figure out smarter strategies for getting along with skeptics while successfully discouraging and punishing lawbreakers. They must be the grownups in the room, and not stoop to shortcuts or prosecutorial skulduggery.
The Bundys will mess up again. The next time should be the last time, with federal prison being their next bunkhouse.