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A Conversation of Law and a memorial

On February 14, 2012 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals published an opinion in a case that became simply known as “Leigh v Salazar.” One of many cases with that moniker as we fight for wild horses, our fight for the publics right to know has been core to the work of our founder and this organization. That case has been widely cited in civil rights trials nationwide defending press and public freedoms, yet often goes overlooked in the wild horse world.

Ninth Circuit Judge J. Noonan has just passed away.

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.

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Galahad and Silver King

Just journaling, Laura Leigh

“It’s hard to get the public to understand simple cases involving a NEPA violation or handling issues. This particular case is not simplistic. One of the burdens carried by our wild horses is propaganda. That spin machine is active in every venue they occupy from range through holding. We could say it is the ‘invasive species’ that threatens their survival and safety more than any other.

The public probably knows more about the horses from the area that went to sanctuary, that started this filing, than they understand about the grueling fight to protect them. I filed this case at Silver King in 2010. In addition I facilitated the rescue of some of the horses I had met there. I fought 5 more years and am still fighting, the issues surrounding their protection. I am glad they are safe, but I wish the public could grasp the depth of the fight and the truth of it. This one court case, not counting all my other filings, when stacked brief on top of brief stands as tall as my mid thigh. That’s just the paperwork, not the work behind the case.

This case overthrew the “mootness doctrine.” This case spanned more than access and the right to know. This win allowed my fight for handling issues to win over and over by jumping the “end of roundup” hurdle. Before this decision the end of a roundup was the end of the legal conversation. Many of you wont understand that… but this case is a true monument in this fight.

I just found out that the Ninth Circuit Judge Noonan has passed away. Judge Noonan was one of the Judges that sat at the hearing on that case, I remember him. He was also the only dissenting opinion. His dissent was not necessarily to the issue, but how the legal conversation was being handled. He was unaware that I had tried numerous times to insert historic information and that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had objected and the district court Judge allowed the obstruction time and again. He felt that remand should be for permanent injunctive relief, if at all, and that to move it on remand for Preliminary was a waste of time.

The opinion, authored by Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith, has been noted in so many cases.  You could hear the Liberty Bell ring when you read the ruling. It was a testament to those breaking ground in news and law.

It was used as part of the basis to shoot down spaying of wild horses in an experiment, the case was based on lack of public participation and BLM withdrew the project, not because of a court ruling. The basis in law we have built is very useful, even if it goes unmentioned.

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Silver King, his last day at home before being shipped to Gunnison prison. I was searched after following his trailer. I got to see him, but only after having cameras and everything I had, left at the security check. I was later told BLM would need to notify SWAT, (yes, that SWAT), if I came to pick him up. BLM treats me as if I’m some kind of “ninja” and not a legal public interest that has NEVER broken a rule, law or insanely stupid protocol.

When we won the case, as with every case we have won, a vitriolic public spin came with it. The same thing happened when we won the first case against inhumane treatment in history. It is something I do not understand about advocacy. I am often called a few nasty names because of how I respond to other advocacy orgs. Well, if you hit a dog enough for doing the right thing, it is bound to stop behaving the way you want it to, or simply have it’s spirit broken (like I have seen in government agencies). Particularly if it is the dog you tie in the yard and don’t even feed it. I’m laughing, because that is what I feel like.

When I write these pieces they are part information and part simply an expression of a moment of this journey. If I go into the legal discussion, where my heart finds so much joy, the public doesn’t understand. I wrote half this brief as well as being the sole author on Fish Creek and others. I love law, arguments done well can be like a gladiatorial ring.

On remand this case gave me a moment I don’t think I have seen, and sadly rarely have ever seen, in advocacy. On remand, back in district court before we had to take it back to the Ninth, there was a moment… one moment… I will never forget. I know this is something everyone can relate to.

I was asked “why.” Why do I do this? I spoke of the love I have for our wild horses and what they give me, that I get nowhere else in this world.

I looked in the gallery. People that I know do not always agree and are often involved in arguing or differing philosophy, they were holding hands. They all had tears in their eyes. For one moment, in this million mile journey the humans involved all knew why each one of us sat in that room… and it was not for us, it was for the wild ones. People from the BLM also looked at me with a nod, they also knew why I do this.

Since that day some of those that sat in that gallery have degraded each other, me, and fractured that moment. But that day still shines in my memory.

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Silver King and Galahad on their mid point stop

That day was long after this first ruling in 2012, it was when we were on remand. The cases did not go to settlement until 2014. This issue remains contentious and this beast may rear it’s head once more.

February 14, 2012 I was at a roundup, the only advocate/observer or whatever you want to call me on that day. I was denied meaningful access at an operation where I met Dave Philipps and we began to work on the investigative piece; the Tom Davis/ Salazar wild horse slaughter connection. At that operation death threats were alive on the internet and an organization was born to destroy my work, the FBI got involved. Another “advocate” called the Sheriff and tried to get me arrested on trumped up vitriol (what you all experience on social media I experience in real life). I was working on other litigation involving humane handling. I was trying to work with BLM on adoption efforts.

On my drive back from the trap, dirty and exhausted, my phone began to ping insanely as I came back into cell phone range. I returned two calls; one to my attorney and one to someone that worked for BLM. Both of them read me the ruling. It felt like a turning point.

Years later I found myself at a roundup. My access was being denied. I was being threatened again, including threats from a BLM contractor. I was being run over by advocates. BLM had seemed to have forgotten everything. Advocacy had seemed to have forgotten everything.

The words in Alan Kania’s book on Velma Johnston haunted me. “I’m bitter. YUP.” 

It took me a few months to get though all of what I was feeling, remember from 2013-2016 I fought breast cancer on the road, in court and inside this mess. But I’m not dead yet.

I’ve come to a place of acceptance. Not acceptance that wrong is somehow an ‘ok’ thing, but acceptance of this role I play. I am the dog everyone tried to chain in the backyard, I just am. I wish I was the pooch on the couch or the one with the fancy little bed. I’m just not and that is what is ‘ok.’ I’m not writing a lot about what I am doing but you will know soon enough, this dog is off-leash.

But I remember you Judge Noonan. I will remember you always.”

Back to work.

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