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US agency wins in decades-old land-grazing case

RENO, Nev. — Siding with the government in a decades-old battle over grazing rights, a federal appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling in favor of a Nevada rancher and strongly admonished a judge in Reno for abusing his power and exhibiting personal bias against U.S. land managers.

In a pair of decisions issued on Friday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the late Wayne Hage of Tonopah and his family were guilty of trespassing cattle on federal land illegally without a grazing permit and should be subject to fines. The appellate court based in San Francisco also determined that U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones had no legal basis to find employees of the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service in contempt of court for doing their jobs.

In remanding the case back to the lower court in Reno, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit took the unusual step of ordering a different district judge to handle the case.

Such a move is warranted "only in rare and extraordinary circumstances, such as when the district court has exhibited personal bias or when reassignment is advisable to maintain the appearance of justice," Judge Susan Graber wrote in the 3-0 decision.

"We regretfully conclude that the quoted standard is met here because a reasonable observer could conclude that the judge's feelings against (the federal agencies) are both well-established and inappropriately strong," she said.

Jones, a former bankruptcy judge in Las Vegas who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003, has had his share of conflict with the 9th Circuit Court.  His rejection of same-sex marriage in Nevada in 2012 was overturned by the appeals court in 2014. So was his 2012 effort to pull "None of These Candidates" off Nevada's ballots.

More recently, Jones was overturned in September 2015 when the 9th Circuit revived a lawsuit against the Nevada Health and Human Services Department over the issue of disenfranchising potential low-income and disabled voters.

In a 104-page ruling in May 2013, Jones largely agreed with the Hages' argument that they didn't have to have a grazing permit because they had existing water rights that entitled them to run their cattle on the federal land in north-central Nevada about 200 miles north of Las Vegas.

The 9th Circuit disagreed.

"Defendants openly trespassed on federal land," Graber wrote. "The ownership of water rights has no effect on the requirement that rancher obtain a grazing permit ... before allowing cattle to graze on federal lands."

In finding two government workers — Thomas Seley of the Bureau of Land Management and Steven Williams of the Forest Service — in contempt of court for their continued attempts to force the Hages to comply with the law, the 9th Circuit said Jones "grossly abused the power of contempt by holding two federal agency officials in contempt of court for taking ordinary, lawful actions that had no effect whatsoever on this case."