It did not come as a particular surprise last week when President Donald Trump issued full pardons for Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Oregon ranchers who were serving federal prison time for starting fires on their eastern Oregon ranch that spread to federal grazing lands.
After all, Trump recently has shown a good deal of interest in his power to issue pardons, especially since it's something he can do all by himself; he doesn't need to get congressional approval or run it by his Justice Department. It's a shiny object in the presidential toy box. No wonder it caught his eye.
And once the Hammonds' case caught Trump's eye, it seemed like only a matter of time before he signed pardons for both men.
We think Trump erred by issuing full pardons; the more appropriate choice would have been to commute the remainder of the Hammonds' sentence, which would have let the arson convictions stand. That's a moot point now, but it's not as if people will forget about this incident, another flashpoint in the long war over public lands in the West.
With that said, though, here are other takeaways from last week's pardons:
• The convictions in the case weren't particularly controversial, at least in most quarters. But the sentences involved bothered many Oregonians. The crimes carried five-year mandatory minimum sentences because they fell under the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which had been passed a decade before. The original sentencing judge thought these penalties were much too harsh, and he declined to impose them; Dwight Hammond was sentenced to three months, Steven to a year and a day. (Notably, as The Oregonian pointed out in a recent editorial, the prosecutor raised no objection to those sentences as the time.) The Hammonds served those sentences.
But the government appealed the sentences as being too lenient and illegal. A federal court agreed. The Hammonds were sentenced again and returned to prison in early 2016. This, of course, set the stage for the Bundy family and its misguided followers to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. More about that later.
We tend to agree with the original sentencing judge, who thought the five-year minimum sentences mandated by the law were excessive. The one good thing that could come out of this case would be a broader examination of how minimum sentencing guidelines, both state and federal, have hobbled judges' abilities to render just sentences. Such an examination is long overdue.
• In the wake of last week's pardons, you heard immediate calls for Trump to issue pardons for those refuge occupiers who were convicted in connection with the takeover. (You'll recall that Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and other key takeover leaders were acquitted of federal charges after government prosecutors, aiming too high, sought convictions on conspiracy charges.) But talk of pardons for takeover participants is ludicrous and should go no further. On the other hand, you never know with Trump. Speaking of which:
• We suppose it's too much to ask Trump to build some kind of coherent framework to guide his pardon decisions, but we can dream. As matters stand now, it appears as if the president issues pardons in cases that catch his eye. Need a pardon? Get a celebrity to pitch your case directly to Trump.
• Finally, it's important to keep the broader picture in view: This entire story is a particularly colorful piece in a broader (and long-running) debate about publicly owned lands in the West. More than half of Oregon (54.9 percent) is publicly owned. The story is similar in other Western states. Frankly, Trump never has shown much interest in Western issues, and our guess is that he has little interest in learning. But a wider understanding of these issues and how they've played out across the West will serve the rest of us well the next time the debate flares up. (mm)