L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 112, March 12, 2001
Ides of Millenium
In Two Nevada Courtrooms, the Good Guys Get Their Say
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Land rights activists report the letters poured in to Chief U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben in the weeks before his Feb. 21 sentencing of Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner.
(Gardner was convicted last November on charges of grazing his cattle from time to time on government land in northeast Nevada — acreage his family has ranched for generations.)
One also wonders if His Honor didn't raise a finger and sense a change in the wind when the U.S. Forest Service — now serving a very different master in the person of incoming Interior Secretary Gale Norton — last week folded its tents entirely in the five-year struggle to close off the Jarbidge Canyon Road (also in northeast Nevada) to all human access.
("We received threats and intimidation from the government up until election time, and then they [federal officials] became cooperative," says Nolan Lloyd, chairman of the Elko County Commission.)
Finally, some 75 people — mostly ranchers rooting for the defendant — packed McKibben's courtroom Wednesday to see if the judge would make a sacrificial lamb of Gardner in the ongoing federal campaign to drive the West's small, family ranchers off the land.
And suddenly, the judge's demeanor began to change.
Where Gardner had previously been told he would not be allowed to stage his slide show in the courtroom, presenting his case that grazing cattle on the lands actually increases crop diversity and wildlife yields (while challenging federal jurisdiction over the lands in question), Judge McKibben announced at the last minute that Gardner would be given half an hour to speak his piece.
"He told him he'd only let him run it for half an hour, but I think it ran 45 minutes or an hour," says Gardner's son Charley, reached at the Slash-J ranch on Friday. "They let him do the whole slide show and it came off real well."
In the end, the judge imposed a $1,000 fine, suspended pending appeal — a minimal penalty — and ordered the Forest Service to sit down and work with Gardner. Another witness describes prosecutors and other government agents on hand looking "stunned — and not in a happy way."
"He said they were supposed to work with my dad, they're supposed to sit down and have a talk, but he did order the cattle off the land," Charley continues. "What he said is that if they get out again the Forest Service has to notify us and then we have three days to get them off."
I asked the rodeo champion if the family's ranch can be operated at a profit without using those federal lands, as such small ranchers have been accustomed to do for more than a century.
"I don't think so."
So what's his father going to do?
"You'll have to get that from the horse's mouth," Charley said.
Cliff Gardner couldn't be reached for comment by deadline.
In one of the high points of the six-day Clutter vs. Transportation Services Authority trial in the Las Vegas courtroom of District Judge Ron Parraguirre — which ended Wednesday — attorneys for the linousine commission and the town's "intervening" major limousine companies actually went so far as to assert the reason more competition should not be allowed in the limousine industries is because new competitors might ... charge lower prices.
Oh, the horror.
The resulting lower profit margins could discourage operators from spending enough on safety and vehicle upkeep, claimed defenders of the existing protection racket.
Clark Neily, one of two attorneys for the Washington-based Institute for Justice (representing the would-be independent limo operators) responded by introducing voluminous evidence of accident and safety citations against vehicles of today's operators.
So much for the theory that firms enjoying a well-padded government monopoly will dutifully change out those old tires before they start to go bald.
"One of the other things that was really notable during this trial was how desperately the TSA plus the three intervening companies fought to keep out evidence on what's been going on in the TSA in the intervening three years" (since the plaintiffs had their limos impounded), explains Dana Berliner, the other Institute for Justice attorney representing the independents.
"What's been going on is that all the independent companies have had to cut deals with the intervenors in order to get their certificates," Berliner told me Thursday.
Since Nevada law allows license applications to be rejected if existing firms "intervene" to complain the new competition would hurt their bottom lines, "Basically, if you're an independent your fate is in the hands of these (existing) companies, because they either run you through the paper mill or use up all of your resources on legal fees so you're not financially fit anymore to get the license. ..."
I asked Ms. Berliner is she thought there's much chance Judge Parraguirre will order her clients reimbursed for their trouble and expense, as well as for the value of their seized vehicles.
"That'll never happen," she conceded. "Although it's within the power of the court to make monetary restitution, that's not what this suit was about. This is a due process constitutional case ... to get this arbitrary and really burdensome and abusive process changed for everybody."
Judge Parraguirre is expected to rule in about six weeks.