OR Refuge Occupiers Misread Constitution On Property Rights, Experts Say


Occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refugei in Oregon for three weeks have made sweeping demands that local and federal authorities say are brazen and unrealistic, The Oregonian reports. They want immediate freedom for imprisoned local ranchers. They want federal deeds voided and private owners to take over the property. They want federal grazing permits vacated, leaving ranchers free to graze as they choose. They say they won’t go until they get their way. Lawyers, ranchers, federal authorities and others say little of what they want is likely to happen for reasons that include legal principle, basic property rights, economic forces and cost. Federal authorities say the occupiers’ demands fly in the face of the U.S. Constitution. A bedrock claim of the small group led by Arizona businessman Ammon Bundy is that the Constitution limits federal ownership of land. They say the federal government is violating Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 by illegally holding 76 percent of Harney County.

Scholars say Bundy and his followers misread the Constitution. “You have to read the entire document and not just the clauses and provisions that you think support your case,” said Elizabeth Wydra of the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center. She says the provision cited by Bundy is “mostly about the District of Columbia and the idea that there would be the neutral place for the government to be located instead of in an area belonging to a particular state. It’s really hard for me to see how that relates to their claims.” The more important provision, Wydra said, is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 – known as the “Property Clause”: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” In 1976, New Mexico officials tried to keep wild burros that they had seized from federal land. The officials claimed what the Oregon occupiers claim – that the Constitution strictly limits what property the federal government can own or control. State officials argued that Congress had no power over public lands without state consent. “This argument is without merit,” the Supreme Court ruled.

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