Those looking for proof the trial of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy holds intrigue far beyond the wind-swept brush of Bunkerville would have found it Thursday morning during the final day of jury selection.
In the second row of U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s courtroom sat firebrand conservative lawyer and thwarted Bundy defense counsel Larry Klayman, who is known for founding the Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch organizations, hounding the Clintons, and accusing former President Obama of being a foreign-born secret Muslim. To his left was Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter with Alabama’s Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has long tracked the activity of the Ku Klux Klan, other hate groups, armed militia outfits and, on occasion, Larry Klayman.
Set to begin Tuesday morning, the trial of the Bundy family patriarch, sons Ammon and Ryan, and militia coordinator Ryan Payne is a philosophical as well as legal showdown. The government accuses the defendants of conspiring in the spring of 2014 to use force to halt a court-ordered impoundment of Bundy’s cattle after he lost a 20-year grazing-fee battle with the Bureau of Land Management. Hundreds of pro-Bundy supporters, including armed militia associates, converged on BLM and National Park Service law enforcement officers in a heated standoff on April 12 that took place in a desert wash outside Bunkerville. No shots were fired, and the government retreated to avoid possible bloodshed.
The case has focused international attention on the contentious issue of the control of federal public lands in the American West. Rancher Bundy’s popular image as a Constitution-carrying cowboy has provided an irresistible icon for libertarian conservatives and those eager to throw open the gates of the West to mining, oil, gas, and logging development.
To some Bundy’s a welfare rancher who encouraged armed militia members to intimidate federal employees. To others he’s a patriot without a piccolo who is courageously standing up to an overreaching government. A jury will decide whether he’s guilty of playing Tom Sawyer as militia members and allies painted his fence by forcing the feds to, at least temporarily, turn loose of his wayward steers.
To Klayman, the rancher is a man to admire. Although he’s not at Bundy’s defense table despite multiple appeals — attorney Bret O. Whipple holds that distinction — Klayman is easily one of the trial’s most interesting characters. With his shock of white hair and bird-of-prey focus, Klayman was easy to spot as he took notes and conferred with Bundy family members this past week.
He’s been on the scene almost from the start.I first saw him in April 2014 not long after the standoff at “Camp Liberty,” the makeshift staging area and gathering place outside the Bundy Ranch. He didn’t arrive on horseback, but in a Mercedes. Earlier in the week, the Florida resident wore a Western-cut sport coat and polished boots, but the Duke-educated former federal prosecutor is no cow-puncher.
By the SPLC’s assessment, he’s a “pathologically litigious attorney and professional gadfly notorious for suing everyone from Iran’s Supreme Leader to his own mother.” But that sells short Klayman’s tenacity, legal acumen and undeniable ability to irritate the system.
For the right-wing warrior, the battle never ends. Just because he’s been shut down repeatedly in U.S. District Court, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, not to mention an attempt to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, that doesn’t mean he’s quitting. In a brief interview, he let on that he’s repeatedly reached out to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a review of the case for possible signs of politics or selective prosecution. He also said he plans to seek redress from Gov. Brian Sandoval and, failing that, will approach Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt with a plan to have the land in question declared state property and, therefore, no longer under federal jurisdiction.
Then there’s the rumor whispered by the friends of the defense that Bundy might receive the equivalent of divine intervention from Washington in the form of a pardon. It’s an idea floated by Roger Stone, President Trump’s salty acolyte, in a Southern Nevada rally.
It all sounds interesting, but did I mention the trial starts Tuesday?
“Bret can’t handle this on his own,” Klayman said. “It’s a big case. He has the lead defendant. I’m not criticizing him. It’s a big case.”
That backhanded compliment must come as no surprise to Whipple. Bundy, as Klayman’s proxy, filed an unsuccessful motion with the Ninth Circuit requesting Klayman be allowed to represent him at trial. One of the reasons cited was Whipple’s lack of federal criminal defense experience. It was rejected by the appeals court.
In an opinion, the Ninth Circuit wrote, “The assertions made by Bundy about his counsel are demonstrably false. Either Klayman has failed to ascertain the facts by, for example, talking with Whipple or looking at Whipple’s website, or he has deliberately misled the court. Neither option paints Klayman in a good light.”
The appeals court echoed trial judge Navarro’s assessment “that Klayman’s admission would be a substantial impediment to the ‘ethical and orderly administration of justice.’”
“Bundy asserts that only Klayman will be able to properly fight these prejudicial rulings,” the court wrote, but found the facts and argument lacking.
That pushed Klayman out of Bundy’s official inner circle, but not out of the courtroom, where he studiously took notes and stayed close to the family. Acknowledging he’s met with the Bundy family perhaps two dozen times, Klayman said he expected to be back in front of Navarro “in the next few days” to press once again to join the defense. He declined to be more specific. He made it appear he plans to seek interveners on his behalf to somehow make it a state’s rights issue.
He’s obviously mindful of the politics in play.
“I think that could be a great issue for Adam Laxalt in his run for governor,” Klayman said. “If Adam won’t do it, and the governor won’t step in, we’ll file a lawsuit in state court.”
Although some might wonder whether his courtroom presence is a distraction to the defense and an irritant to the judge, Klayman remains as sure of his importance to the case as he does of Bundy’s place in history.
Conjuring images of the excesses of King George III and the patriots of the American Revolution while catcalling alleged abuses by the FBI and Department of Justice, Klayman said, “I think this is the most important case I’ve been involved in. It’s an example of how the small people can fight back against government tyranny.”
“If the Bundys get steamrolled, the rest of us can get steamrolled, too.”
Perhaps, but that still doesn’t get Klayman a seat at the table.
Editor’s note: This column has been corrected regarding the timing of John L. Smith’s first encounter with Larry Klayman. The original version of this column stated that it occurred the weekend before the standoff. It occurred a few days later.
John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at email@example.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.