U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court turned down arson case at center of Oregon standoff

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The ranchers whose criminal case sparked the armed standoff in Oregon were denied a chance to make their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the National Law Journal reported.

In U.S. v. Hammond, father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond were prosecuted for arson on federal land. The Hammonds, whose cattle ranch abuts federal land where they have grazing rights, had set a fire in 2001 that prosecutors argued was intended to cover up evidence of poaching. Steven Hammond was also convicted of setting fires in 2006 to control wildfires created by lightning.

The Hammonds became a cause celebre among anti-government activists in part because of mandatory minimum sentencing. Originally, a federal district judge had given Dwight Hammond three months in prison and Steven Hammond one year and one day, saying the mandatory minimum of five years was “grossly disproportionate” and would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

However, the Justice Department successfully appealed those sentences to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2014, a panel of the court found the mandatory minimum was not disproportionate, given the seriousness of arson. It said the Supreme Court has upheld longer sentences for comparable or less serious crimes.

The Hammonds appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied certiorari without comment in March. Their attorney, Kendra Matthews of Portland’s Ransom Blackman, argued that this was a clear instance of mandatory minimum sentences violating the Eighth Amendment.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, opposing the petition, wrote that the Hammonds endangered firefighters and nearby campers and had gone to great lengths to cover up their actions.

After the case was turned down, a federal district judge resentenced both Hammonds to the five-year mandatory minimum. The Hammonds reported to prison Monday as required.

The Oregon occupiers had originally been part of a peaceful protest of the resentencing. However, a group of armed occupiers split off from that protest over the weekend and broke into an unoccupied office on the grounds of a wildlife reserve, vowing to stay “for years, absolutely,” the Portland Oregonian reported. Leaders including Ryan Bundy, one of the three sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, told the Oregonian that they want the Hammonds released and the Malheur National Forest given to locals.

“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy told the Oregonian.

According to Reuters, residents in nearby Burns, Oregon, are sympathetic to the Hammonds but skeptical of the armed protesters, who they see as outside agitators. Local schools have been closed out of concerns about violence. The Hammonds’ attorney says they did not invite or endorse the occupation.

The Guardian says the federal government plans to shut off power, phone service and road access to the wildlife refuge.

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