The Cliven Bundy federal trespass case brings to my mind two other court cases – a traffic citation contested by a sovereign citizen type and the 1832 case of Worcester v. Georgia in which Andrew Jackson reportedly made the probably apocryphal statement, “Justice Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!”
The Bundy trespass case, for those who haven’t followed it, involves a Nevada rancher who is grazing his cattle on public lands and has been for quite some time. His family had paid rent for quite some time, but in the 90s, Bundy decided he’d prefer not to pay for the use of the land. The federal government told him he was trespassing and so he decided that he wouldn’t recognize the authority of the federal government. The government took him to court and won. The federal court presumably (I haven’t seen the text of the order) found that Bundy’s claim that he had inherent authority to graze on someone else’s land for free was so much nonsense. Here is a timeline of events. Most recently, Bundy has gained notoriety by resisting eviction efforts through threats of armed violence. He is dressing it up in some kind of crusade against an overbearing federal government. But, at its heart, the federal government has title to property that he wants for himself, so he’s pretending those property rights don’t exist in order to enrich himself. He does not deal with the inconvenient fact that, if the feds never had the right to the land, then title probably rests with Mexico who transferred title after being beat in a war with the U.S. government that Bundy claims never gained the right to that land.
The Worcester case cited above also had to do with the nature of the federal government and its relation to the states:
Chief Justice John Marshall laid out in this opinion the relationship between the Indian Nations and the United States is that of nations. He argued that the United States, in the character of the federal government, inherited the rights of Great Britain as they were held by that nation. Those rights, he stated, are the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America, to the exclusion of any other European power, and not the rights of possession to their land or political dominion over their laws. He acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government and not in the hands of the individual states.
The court ruled that the individual states, had no authority in American Indian affairs.
The purported quote from Jackson, however, adds an additional layer of interest for me — proclaiming that Chief Justice Marshall would have to enforce the order himself. This gets at a fundamental question of court authority. When you dig down, court authority rests on a foundation of men with guns willing to, if necessary, go out and force compliance with the court’s order. Absent this force, a court order is little more than a guy in a robe writing words on a piece of paper. It becomes something else when the Sheriff or the U.S. Marshal or the 101st Airborne is willing to back up that order with force.
The local traffic ticket was just a case I had some incidental involvement in when one of my clients was subpoenaed as a witness. Basically, the defendant who had been cited for driving without a license or some such wanted to have a jury trial focused on the ability of the government to regulate his behavior at all and of the personal jurisdiction of state courts to preside over efforts to regulate his behavior. Rather than focusing narrowly on whether he did, in fact, engage in the prohibited behavior or, somewhat more broadly, on whether the particular law was Constitutional, this individual wanted to bog the process down in a debate over the foundations of law and government. As a practical matter, no sustainable government can entertain existential challenges every time it attempts to regulate the behavior of its citizens. And the judge wasn’t having it either. He correctly recognized that, if the individual insisted on a jury trial for the traffic ticket, he could have it. But the jury’s role was going to be to determine what, in fact, happened — whether this individual engaged in the prohibited conduct. The jury was not going to be asked to determine whether our system of government is, as a general proposition, a good idea. At the end of the day, this defendant was not some deep political thinker leading a well thought out movement for change. He was mainly just pissed off that someone was telling him what to do. In short: throwing a tantrum.
And that’s what we seem to have with this Bundy fellow. He would prefer that the government land be his land, and he’s mad that the government won’t let him use the land as if it were his own. He has convinced himself that he has a right to the land. But the underpinnings of that imagined right falls apart rather quickly when you look too closely at them. If the United States government is not in the property rights business out in that stretch of Nevada, then Bundy doesn’t even have a claim to his land — let alone the adjacent parcels of real estate. He’s squatting on Mexican land — land that Mexico has not regulated because of a (if we adopt Bundy’s way of thinking) misguided notion that the United States had jurisdiction over the land and a willingness to use force to assert its rights. Property rights under U.S. law flow from the premise that the land in question is within its jurisdiction. And it does no good to claim that those rights flow from the authority of Nevada because, if the U.S. doesn’t take the land from Mexico, Nevada never has authority over the land in the first place.
I’ll be interested to see what the government and the court do from here. They backed off for the time being in the face of armed resistance to a court order. Unless I misunderstand the nature of the proceedings, this would seem to be the time for some sort of criminal obstruction of justice charge. Law, in the end, boils down to potential violence. The government has asserted a monopoly on violence, and it has been crystallized into a body of law which dictates when and how that force can be used. That we are a “government of laws, not men” means that we have attempted to create a bulwark against arbitrary and self-serving use of force by individuals. After a legal decision has been made and the subject of that decision has been afforded due process in the course of that decision being made, the government has a strong interest in using that level of force necessary to coerce compliance with the law. If the importance of the legal decision is marginal and the implementation of the decision is more or less just ignored, that’s probably acceptable from time to time. But highly publicized armed resistance is detrimental to the long term viability of the rule of law. That’s why President Washington took armed troops to put down the tax protestors in the Whiskey Rebellion. If Bundy continues armed resistance to court orders, I presume he’ll meet with the same fate.
Update I just wanted to link to some relevant court documents (pdf) in the Bundy case. From the United States District Court for the District of Nevada’s order of July 9, 2013.
Bundy principally opposes the United States’ motion for summary judgment on the ground that this court lacks jurisdiction because the United States does not own the public lands in question. As this court previously ruled in United States v. Bundy, Case No. CV-S-98-531-JBR (RJJ) (D. Nev. Nov. 4, 1998), “the public lands in Nevada are the property of the United States because the United States has held title to those public lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States.” CV-S-98-531 at 8 (citing United States v. Gardner, 107 F.3d 1314, 1318 (9th Cir. 1997)). Moreover, Bundy is incorrect in claiming that the Disclaimer Clause of the Nevada Constitution carries no legal force, see Gardner, 107 F.3d at 1320; that the Property Clause of the United States Constitution applies only to federal lands outside the borders of states, see id. at 1320; that the United States‘ exercise of ownership over federal lands violates the Equal Footing Doctrine, see id. at 1319; that the United States is basing its authority to sanction Bundy for his unauthorized use of federal lands on the Endangered Species Act as opposed to trespass, see Compl. at ¶¶ 1,3, 26-39; and that Nevada’s “Open Range” statute excuses Bundy’s trespass. See e.g., Gardner, 107 F.3d at 1320 (under Supremacy Clause state statute in conflict with federal law requiring permit to graze would be trumped).
Nor is there a legitimate dispute that Bundy has grazed his cattle on the New Trespass Lands without federal authorization. The United States has submitted Bundy’s deposition excerpts indicating that Bundy has grazed livestock on the New Trespass Lands and further evidence of the trespass of Bundy’s cattle in those areas. Notwithstanding Bundy’s contentions that the observed cattle bearing his brand may not in fact be his own, such a denial does not controvert Nevada law regarding prima facie evidence of ownership of branded cattle. In sum, in this most recent effort to oppose the United States’ legal process, Bundy has produced no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada, or that his cattle have not trespassed on the New Trespass Lands.
. . .
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Bundy is permanently enjoined from trespassing on the New Trespass Lands.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the United States is entitled to protect the New Trespass Lands against this trespass, and all future trespasses by Bundy.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Bundy shall remove his livestock from the New Trespass Lands within 45 days of the date hereof, and that the United States is entitled to seize and remove to impound any of Bundy’s cattle that remain in trespass after 45 days of the date hereof.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the United States is entitled to seize and remove to impound any of Bundy’s cattle for any future trespasses, provided the United States has provided notice to Bundy under the governing regulations of the United States Department of the Interior.