USA Justice First Look

Trial begins for supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy (+video)

Three years after rancher Cliven Bundy's standoff against federal officials, jury selection has begun for six of his supporters. His and his sons' armed protests have raised questions about federal land management and the limits of legal protest.

In this April 18, 2014, file photo, rancher Cliven Bundy, flanked by armed supporters, speaks at a protest camp near Bunkerville, Nev.
John Locher/ Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP/ File | Caption

Jury selection began Monday in the first of three trials involving ranchers who staged an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada three years ago to protest federal land policies, bringing a legal battle over the right to bear arms in protest to a federal court.

Six defendants are slated to face charges stemming from the 2014 protest, during which ranchers prayed, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and wielded rifles to decry the federal government’s move to roundup and hold rancher Cliven Bundy's cattle after he failed to pay grazing fees. In later proceedings, protest leader and ranch owner Mr. Bundy, along with four of his sons, some of whom took part in a similar standoff in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, are expected to face charges that could land them in prison for life.

While some see the protest measures as drastic – armed insurrections against the government that jeopardize the safety of federal agents – defendants say they intended to exercise their First and Second Amendment rights by peacefully protesting the measure and openly carrying guns.

The six protesters expected to stand trial Monday are accused of bringing guns to the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., to assist the family in the standoff. While the the trial involving the Bundy family members will likely have greater implications for any potential copycats and the right to protest using weapons, the outcome of these proceedings will also set the stage for the Bundy case.

"They're not the Bundys," said Todd Leventhal, the attorney for defendant Orville Scott Drexler, one of the six whose case begins Monday, according to the Associated Press. "But realistically, this is a Bundy case. The outcome of this trial affects the other two."

Meanwhile on Monday, four of 26 defendants facing charges for a similar standoff in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year entered guilty pleas for lesser charges, such as trespassing, in exchange for reduced sentences. Mr. Bundy’s sons were instrumental in organizing those protests, but were acquitted in an October trial along with five others.

Bundy’s protest saw initial success in 2014. Federal agents backed down, returning 400 cattle to ranchers in a move that was seen as a win for the ranchers and their traditions.

But authorities weren’t as accommodating when the group of two dozen protesters pulled a similar move last year at Malheur. After a standoff, authorities surrounded protesters until they surrendered.

So far, authorities have not found a uniform response to the unorthodox protest methods.

What we are seeing is new,” Christian Turner, a professor at University of Georgia School of Law, previously told The Christian Science Monitor of the protests. “If you do look at guns as bearing messages, and people talking with their guns by carrying them, you can’t ignore one thing they undoubtedly say: I can kill you. Whatever else you intend to say, you have a machine that can instantly cause death.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.