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Government opting for secrecy over scrutiny

A federal judge last Friday slammed the door on accountability, ruling the federal government could conceal from the public a wide range of evidence in the Cliven Bundy case.

It’s an unfortunate decision elevating government secrecy above the importance of public scrutiny.

Bundy, the Bunkerville rancher involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with federal land managers and law enforcement officials over grazing rights, is among 19 defendants scheduled to stand trial early next year on charges that include conspiring to assault BLM agents.

Prosecutors for months have sought to prevent the defense from revealing a variety of government documents, citing security concerns. The evidence in questions includes grand jury testimony, FBI and police reports, witness statements and other details.

Late last week, Judge Peggy Leen granted that request.

“The government has made a sufficient threshold showing,” she wrote, “of actual and potential threats, intimidation and harassment to victims, witnesses and law enforcement officers to show good cause for a protective order restricting dissemination of pre-trial discovery.”

And on this matter, taxpayers will just have to take Judge Leen’s word for it. She held no open hearing on the issue, making it difficult to evaluate the necessity of such a broad order encompassing significant aspects of the case.

Surely the judge had other options rather than simply placing under wraps scores of reports and records.

“It is deeply troubling that so many documents will automatically be hidden from public view,” noted Maggie McLetchie, the attorney who represented the Review-Journal and other media in opposing the push for secrecy.

Those who have little sympathy for Bundy and believe him to be a crazed, right-wing nut might be tempted to applaud the ruling. But this isn’t about choosing sides in the long-simmering conflict involving federal land use in the West. Instead, it’s about the importance of an open judiciary and preserving the public’s ability to review and assess the actions of those operating within the system.

Cases like this one involving a high level of interest only magnify the need for transparency. Secrecy creates a breeding ground for cynicism and fosters a perception of injustice, undermining public confidence in the judiciary.

It remains to be seen how all this will affect public access during the trial proceedings.

At least one defense attorney involved in the case said he plans to appeal Judge Leen’s decision. The Review-Journal also expects to continue the fight.

Justice thrives only in the sunlight.

This editorial first appeared on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website on Monday.

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