The Ninth Circuit settled a long-standing dispute between federal authorities and Nevada ranchers on Friday, ruling that the Hage family had illegally grazed cattle on federal land without a permit.
But the most noteworthy fight wasn't between renegade ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, it was between the judges of the Ninth Circuit and District Court Judge Robert C. Jones, who "grossly abused his power" and allowed his "well-established and inappropriately strong" feelings against federal agencies to bias his rulings. This is far from Judge Jones' first time being condemned by the Ninth Circuit.
Is It U.S. v. Hage or Judge Jones v. the Federal Government?
The substance of the Hage lawsuit is fairly straightforward, but how the conflict has played out is not. The Hages -- E. Wayne Hage, now deceased, and his son Wayne N. Hage -- have grazed cattle on federal lands without a permit since at least 1993, when the Bureau of Land Management denied E. Wayne Hage's grazing permit because it was improperly filled out. The younger Hage has never applied for a permit, but the two continued to graze cattle on BLM land anyway.
The Hages had argued, however, that their ownership of water rights allowed them to graze without a permit, and Judge Jones agreed, ruling that the Hages could graze freely and holding BLM officers in contempt for attempting to enforce federal grazing rules.
That ruling, the Ninth Circuit noted on appeal, flew in the face of long-established precedent holding that water rights created no implied grazing rights.
Further, Judge Jones also allowed the Hages to challenge their 1993 grazing permit denial under the Administrative Procedure Act -- in 2011. As the Ninth noticed, the APA has a pretty generous six-year statute of limitations, which the Hages had missed by 12 years. Judge Jones' holding that the United States "had taken 'final agency action'" by enforcing grazing laws against the Hages couldn't withstand even the most basic scrutiny.
Judge Jones' Well-Established, Inappropriately Strong Biases
The Ninth, in a unanimous panel decision authored by Judge Susan P. Graber, vacated Jones' ruling and remanded the case to the Nevada district court, but not before ruling that Judge Jones should have no more to do with the case.
Remanding to a different judge is warranted "only in rare and extraordinary circumstances, such as when the district court has exhibited personal bias or when reassignment is advisable to maintain the appearance of justice." Judge Jones' behavior met that standard, the Ninth explained, "because a reasonable observer could conclude that the judge's feelings against (the federal agencies) are both well-established and inappropriately strong."
In a second, unpublished opinion, the Ninth ruled that Judge Jones' contempt finding against federal officials as a gross abuse of power. Again, it explained that "a dispassionate observer would conclude that the district judge harbored animus toward the federal agencies. Unfortunately, the judge's bias and prejudgment are a matter of public record."
Not His First Time at the Rodeo
This isn't the first time that Judge Jones has been called out for the appearance of bias. Last September, the Ninth Circuit kicked him off a case for, again, "well-established and inappropriately strong" bias -- this time against out-of-state attorneys.
In 2012, Judge Jones was singled out by Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt for a particularly harsh rebuke. Jones had ruled that Nevada's "none of the above" voting option was unconstitutional. 2012 was an election year and that option was thought to be most damaging to Mitt Romney. Except Judge Jones refused to issue a written opinion, allegedly to prevent Nevada from appealing until after it was too late to affect the election.
The Ninth Circuit stayed Jones' ruling, even as he argued they had no jurisdiction, and Judge Reinhardt added a concurring opinion directly condemning Judge Jones' tactics:
His dilatory tactics appear to serve no purpose other than to seek to prevent the state from taking an appeal of his decision before it print the ballots. Such arrogance and assumption of power by one individual is not acceptable in our judicial system.