Searching for the Sweet Spot Between Monarchy and Anarchy

I’m not sure which end of President Trump’s pardon for Dwight and Steve Hammond bothers me more — message sent or message received? Taken together, they leave less room for those of us who want a society shaped by something between monarchy and anarchy.

The Hammonds have claimed to be “victims of government overreach,” but the facts presented at trial show a case of “government reach.” For decades, they flouted federal grazing statutes and required range management practices. Each reprimand they received resulted in little more than a slap on the hand.

When U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan imposed sentences less than the law required, the U.S. Attorney’s Office appealed the ruling. The case eventually returned to Eugene, where Chief Judge Ann Aiken imposed the Congressionally mandated five-year prison terms. The system worked as it was designed.

Nevertheless, the supposed injustice it represented led Cliven Bundy, his sons and others to seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon. That 2016 stand-off lasted 41 days, resulted in one death and enough property damage to attract additional felony charges.

The Bundys were prosecuted with anti-terrorism statutes and a jury acquitted them of all charges. If there was any government overreach, it was in this subsequent case. But the jurors refused to convict on the trumped-up charges. Again, the system worked.

Defenders of the Hammonds describe them as “responsible ranchers” and that may be mostly true. But the evidence presented at trial showed them also to be liars, scofflaws, arsons, and thugs. They poached a herd of deer out of season in 2001, then set a fire to federal property to cover up the crime. If they didn’t threaten violence themselves, they condoned it on their behalf.

They resented any government interdictions. They believed they always knew what was best for their cattle and the federal land they fed off, regulations be damned. In short, they were anarchists — skeptical of any role for government, except to benefit them.

Their imprisonment incited others to violence. Their followers have developed intricate theories of constitutional limits on the jurisdictional reach of the federal government. If the land they roam has no rightful owner, it’s an anarchist Shangri La. It’s not lawlessness if it’s beyond the reach of law.

President Trump’s action this week resets the ongoing battle of Bullets vs. Badges that has never stopped shaping life and order in the rural west.

Every federal worker who carries a badge now must consider what possible political connections a criminal may have to help them evade the consequences of their actions. The full force of the federal government became less fulsome.

The White House’s explanation for the pardon demonstrated nothing except a misunderstanding of the history and purpose of the presidential pardon power. “The Hammonds’ responsibility … was conflicting, and the jury acquitted them on most of the charges,” the statement read.

The framers of our government gave the president the same pardon power as the hated King George III. That couldn’t have been an easy decision. Pardons were retained, not as a corrective to the judicial system, but as a tool for mercy and magnanimity.

The judicial system works. But the system may not always be enough. Pardons should soften — not subvert — justice in America.

Previous presidents have used presidential pardons sparingly. Intricate systems have been built around the power, to prevent accidental abuse. Thousands of requests are received each year. Almost none receive the president’s attention until they have been thoroughly vetted by White House attorneys.

Most pardons typically have been issued toward the end of a president’s tenure in office, so that Americans won’t worry that this unbridled power is being used for personal or political gain. But as with so many other protective protocols, this president has removed the guardrails.

Pardons have become this president’s new favorite plaything. He uses them to burnish his image, to appeal to his most loyal supporters, or just to show how he relishes unchecked power.

Our president acts like a king and anarchists walk free. The rule of law is being attacked and diminished from both ends.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.