Judge backs ruling to seal evidence in Bundy case

Nevada’s chief federal judge has upheld a protective order that keeps key evidence under wraps in the Bunkerville standoff case involving the Bundy family.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal and other media organizations lodged objections to the order four months ago, arguing that it was too broad and a blow to transparency in the closely watched case.

But late Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro issued a 10-page decision concluding that the magistrate judge who signed the order, Peggy Leen, had acted appropriately in keeping the documents sealed for safety reasons.

“This court finds that Judge Leen applied the correct legal standard in finding that the government satisfactorily demonstrated good cause based on a ‘sufficient threshold showing of actual potential threats, intimidation and harassment of victims, witnesses and law enforcement officers,’” Navarro wrote.

Navarro said she found that a “credible risk exists” that Bundy family supporters will continue to use social media and the internet to try to threaten and intimidate government employees involved in the prosecution.

Leen’s four-page order prohibits defense teams for all 17 defendants from publicly disclosing grand jury transcripts, FBI and police reports, witness statements and other documents the government collected during its investigation into the 2014 armed standoff between Bundy family forces and law enforcement near Bunkerville.

Any documents considered confidential under the order also must automatically be filed under seal by both prosecutors and defense lawyers without any public explanation.

Review-Journal lawyer Maggie McLetchie, who also represents the interests of Battle Born Media and The Associated Press in the case, expressed her reaction Friday to Navarro’s decision.

“We are disappointed because an overly broad protective order limits how much access the media, and therefore the public, has to information about this high-profile case,” McLetchie said.

“As the case progresses, it will be a challenge to litigate matters in open court when so much is hidden from the public. The order can also have a chill on litigants’ willingness to speak to the press because, with such a broad order, it is hard to know if you can say anything.”

McLetchie said the Review-Journal will continue “to serve as a watchdog in this and other cases to ensure that courts are properly treated as belonging to the public.”

The 17 defendants are charged with conspiring to assault Bureau of Land Management agents on April 12, 2014, and take back impounded Bundy cattle that had been grazing on federal land.

They are to stand trial Feb. 6 before Navarro.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.