The stand off between the Bureau of Land Management and rancher Clive Bundy raises some very intriguing questions about the rule of law in the land of the free and the home of the brave in this year of grace 2014. Bundy and his family have grazed cattle on federal land for generations. In 1993 the Bureau of Land Management changed the rules of the game, limiting the number of cattle to 150 that Bundy could graze, ostensibly to protect an endangered desert tortoise that, it turns out, are so endangered that in recent years the Bureau of Land Management has had to cull them because they have grown so numerous. It also turns out that the tortoise and cattle co-exist fine in any case.
After 1993 Bundy stopped paying Federal grazing fees and grazed his cattle anyway, arguing that the land actually belongs to the State of Nevada rather than the Feds. That argument has been a loser in court for Bundy. He also has powerful enemies in Senator Harry Reid (D.Nv) and his son Rory Reid who often seem to assume that Nevada is, or should be, their personal fiefdom. Go here and here to read about their shady involvement in all this. This all led to an attempted massive show of force by the Bureau of Land Management last week to round up Bundy’s cattle which was called off when videos of confrontations between the Feds and volunteers seeking to protect the Bundy cattle began filling the net. Harry Reid has vowed this isn’t over.
Andrew McCarthy at National Review Online points out why so many people around the country sympathize with Bundy whose family has grazed cattle on public land for 140 years.
The underlying assumption of our belief in the rule of law is that we are talking about law in the American tradition: provisions that obligate everyone equally and that are enforced dispassionately by a chief executive who takes seriously the constitutional duty to execute the laws faithfully. The rule of law is not the whim of a man who himself serially violates the laws he finds inconvenient and who, under a distortion of the “prosecutorial discretion” doctrine, gives a pass to his favored constituencies while punishing his opposition. The rule of law is the orderly foundation of our free society; when it devolves into a vexatious process by which ideologues wielding power undertake to tame those whose activities they disfavor, it is not the rule of law anymore.
The legitimacy of law and our commitment to uphold it hinge on our sense that the law and its execution are just. As John Hinderaker points out, concerns about the desert tortoise—the predicate for taking lawful action against Nevada ranchers under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—turn out to be pretextual. The ideologues who run the government only want to enforce the ESA against a disfavored class, the ranchers. If you’re a well-connected Democrat who needs similar land for a solar project, the Obama administration will not only refrain from enforcing the ESA against you; it will transport the tortoises to the ranchers’ location in order to manufacture a better pretext for using the law to harass the ranchers.
When law becomes a politicized weapon rather than a reflection of society’s shared principles, one can no longer expect it to be revered in a manner befitting “political religion.” And when the officials trusted to execute law faithfully violate laws regularly, they lose their presumption of legitimacy. Much of the public is not going to see the Feds versus Bundy as the Law versus the Outlaw; we are more apt to see it as the Bully versus the Small Fry.