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High court to decide BLM case
CHEYENNE - The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide some issues from a case in which a Wyoming rancher charges that employees with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management stripped him of his federal land grazing permits because he refused to give the agency easements over his land.
The Supreme Court on Friday announced it will consider the case, which centers on whether BLM officials can be sued personally under federal racketeering law for their official actions.
Thermopolis rancher Harvey Frank Robbins maintains that BLM workers pulled his grazing permits and otherwise persecuted him to try to get him to give the government road access.
Although Robbins sued the BLM employees personally, the U.S. Department of Justice is representing them. Kathleen Blomquist, spokesman for the department, said Friday that her office had no comment on the case.
Robbins' case itself is still pending in U.S. District Court in Wyoming. The issue of whether federal employees are immune from suit under the racketeering law was first appealed to 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. When that court sided with Robbins, government lawyers appealed that issue to the Supreme Court.
Cheyenne lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, who represents Robbins, said she has never argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. "I am very excited, and very nervous - especially a case that I believe is going to define private property rights vis-a-vis the federal government," Budd-Falen said.
Because the courts have not addressed a similar situation previously, she said, lawyers on both sides will be left arguing about Congress' original intent.
Budd-Falen said the court has placed the matter on a fast-track schedule, with all briefs due by Feb. 15 next year. She said the case has been pending for seven years, longer than cases usually take.
"The Supreme Court could say that government employees are protected by sovereign immunity, which means that you can't sue them, period," Budd-Falen said. However, she said that if the court rules for Robbins, trial would proceed in Wyoming.
Budd-Falen said the Supreme Court will also consider whether citizens enjoy a constitutional right to be free from retaliation by government employees if they exclude the government from their property.
Budd-Falen said the government argues that the federal employees shouldn't be sued even if they violated or conspired to violate Robbins' property rights because the government, and not the employees themselves, stood to gain by the action.
Budd-Falen said the government maintains that it was acting like any other neighboring property owner in asking Robbins for easements over his land. But she said Robbins maintains that the government must use its power of eminent domain to obtain any easement, and must pay for whatever it gets.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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