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Supreme Court Passed on Case at Heart of Oregon Standoff

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Last week, a group of armed ranchers and anti-government militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters outside Burns, Oregon. Though the men have a variety of complaints against the federal government, the armed occupation first started after protests against the imprisonment of two ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, for arson.

But before it was an insurrection, the Oregon standoff was an unusual criminal case, and one that got right up to the steps of the Supreme Court.

Freedom Fighters or Vanilla ISIS

Resentment against federal control of land in the West is at the heart of the Oregon standoff. Indeed, the seizing of Bureau of Land Management land is just one instance in a long-lasting resistance to federal controls known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. It's a conflict that dates back to the mid-70's, when the U.S. government began taking a more active role in how public lands were managed.

The occupiers are lead by Ammon Bundy, who leads a militia of ranchers and rural discontents. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, who you might remember from another armed standoff with the federal government in 2014, sparked when the feds tried to collect millions in unpaid grazing fees.

The group has been decried as domestic terrorists by some, freedom fighters by others. But while the occupiers talk about logging, ranching, and farming on public land without federal restrictions, the specific conflict that sparked the occupation is often overlooked.

U.S. v. Hammond

Dwight and Steven Hammond are ranchers in rural Oregon. Their cattle ranch sits right next to federal land, where they graze their cattle. (Ranchers get a steep discount for grazing on federal land, paying 93 percent less than they would on private ranges.)

In 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds started fires that spread to public land, in one case burning 140 acres. The ranchers argue that they were attempting to save their own lands, creating "back burns" to stop wildfires from reaching their property.

The two were convicted of arson in 2012, a conviction that the occupiers claim was a heavy-handed, unnecessary prosecution. Dwight Hammond, 73, was sentenced to three months in prison, while his son Steve, 46, spent a year and a day behind bars.

Back to Jail!

But that prison term wasn't long enough, it turned out. The two were found guilty of maliciously damaging the real property of the United States by fire, a charge commonly reserved for terrorists.

That conviction carries a minimum sentence of five years. The district court, however, said that such a long sentence would violate the Eighth Amendment, and gave the pair their shorter terms. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the minimum sentence was not discretionary and that the "Supreme Court has upheld far tougher sentences for less serious, or at the very least, comparable offenses."

The Hammons petitioned to Supreme Court for certiorari. Their petition was opposed by the government, the National Law Journal points out, with U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. noting that the duo "went to great lengths to cover up their serious crimes."

The High Court declined to hear their appeal without comment and the two were ordered to report back to prison, sparking the current occupation.

But while the Hammonds are now back behind bars -- and urging the occupiers to stand down -- the ranchers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge have turned down offers to leave peacefully, saying they're not done taking their stand. In the meantime, they want you to send snacks.

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