SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge recused himself from the Recapture Canyon case involving a San Juan County Commissioner who was convicted earlier this year for his role in a 2014 ATV protest ride in the canyon.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby filed a motion Friday to recuse himself from the case involving San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman and co-defendant Monte Wells. Both men were convicted by a jury earlier this year on federal misdemeanor charges of conspiracy and driving motorized vehicles on closed public lands. Both are scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 15.
In July, Lyman’s defense team filed a motion requesting Shelby remove himself from the case due to a potential conflict of interest involving his friendship with Steven Bloch, the legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Shelby had previously disclosed his friendship with Bloch in an unrelated civil case, Lyman’s motion noted. No such disclosure was made in Lyman’s case, the motion states. Lyman’s lawyers also provided a transcript of Shelby’s disclosure in the motion:
Steve Bloch and his wife Kara are friends of mine and have been for a long, long time. I practiced with Kara at Snow Christensen starting in 1999. My wife and I have socialized with the two of them since that time, we continue to socialize. My son is close friends with Steve’s son, they play on the same soccer team, in the same school class. We have dinner, are couples together and with other friends not infrequently …
Lyman’s motion contends that Shelby’s friendship with Bloch “would lead a reasonable person to question the court’s impartiality in this case.”
Shelby noted in his motion that, following Lyman’s conviction, SUWA and three other conversation groups submitted a letter to the court ahead of sentencing asking that the court render a “punishment that reflects the egregiousness of (Lyman’s) crimes.”
“Until Mr. Lyman filed this disqualification motion, the court was unaware of any involvement in this proceeding by SUWA – which is no party to the case,” Shelby wrote, adding that Lyman had no factual basis that would lead “a well informed, thoughtful, and objective observer” to reach a conclusion that the judge knew otherwise.
Nevertheless, due to SUWA and other groups submitting a letter seeking to influence the Lyman’s sentencing, coupled with the question of potential conflict of interest raised by Lyman’s motion, Shelby chose to recuse himself.
“(This leads) the court independently to conclude that recusal will promote confidence in these proceedings and avoid even the appearance of impropriety in connection with the court’s sentencing duties,” Shelby wrote.
Shelby’s decision comes ahead of any potential ruling that may have otherwise been rendered by another federal judge who had been reviewing Lyman’s disqualification motion.
A new judge will be assigned to oversee sentencing in the case.
On May 10, 2014, Lyman, Wells, and others took part in an ATV ride into Recapture Canyon, near Blanding, Utah, to protest its closure by the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM closed access to the canyon in 2007 in order to protect archaeologically-sensitive sites found within it. However, locals claim the closure was arbitrary and bypassed a federally mandated review process.
The BLM maintains the protest ride didn’t have permission to go into the canyon, thus rendering it an illegal activity. The agency charged Lyman and Wells and three other men accordingly. One of the men had charges dropped early on, while the other two were acquitted.
In a recently filed motion for a new trial, Lyman’s defense team questions the BLM’s authority to close the road into the canyon, arguing it is actually a protected RS 2477 public roadway. If closure of the road was illegal, then the ATV protest ride, and Lyman’s role in it, was not, attorneys said.
Lyman and Wells face up to a year in jail and fines of up to $100,000 for their roles in the protest ride. Federal persecutors are seeking jail time for both men and $95,000 in restitution for alleged damage done to archaeological artifacts by the protest ride.
- Lawyers want judge disqualified in Recapture Canyon protest case
- State won’t pay commissioner’s legal expenses; politicians donate privately
- Resolution supports legal rights of commissioner involved in ATV protest ride
- San Juan County Commissioner found guilty for role in Recapture Canyon ATV protest at Blanding
- Blanding: OHV riders, militia protest BLM, ride through Recapture Canyon; STGnews Photo Gallery (UPDATED) – May 2014
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