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Bogus bidder loses shot at global-warming defense

Published November 16, 2009 8:12 pm

Courts » Judge rules Tim DeChristopher's civil disobedience was a weak-hearted effort.
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A federal judge said Monday that Tim DeChristopher won't be allowed to argue that global warming posed an imminent threat that justified placing bogus bids to derail a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction last year.

"The court finds that DeChristopher's necessity defense fails because there were reasonable, legal alternatives open to DeChristopher other than his alleged criminal acts," U.S. District Judge Dee Benson wrote in his nine-page ruling.

DeChristopher has not disputed that he placed the bids, but had hoped to argue his actions were justified to stave off climate change -- a line of argument that prosecutors successfully sought to have excluded from the trial.

"The point of civil disobedience is it gives a society as represented by 12 random jurors the opportunity to decide if the way the law is functioning is actually just and in accordance with the values of that society," DeChristopher said Monday night. "When that is denied I think we're missing out on something really fundamental in our legal system."

Lawyers for the 28-year-old University of Utah economics student had hoped to call former Interior Secretary and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and NASA scientist James Hansen.

DeChristopher said that if he is not allowed to explain to jurors why he disrupted the lease sale "then it obviously makes it much more likely I'll be going to prison, but that is something I accepted. ... It's the consequences of my actions I was willing to accept throughout."

DeChristopher's attorney, Pat Shea, said the defense team is considering other options, including making a case that others who have bid at oil and gas lease auctions and not paid the government were not prosecuted. "We think there's a strong basis," Shea said, "to say, 'You didn't prosecute those people, why are you prosecuting Tim DeChristopher?' "

In granting the prosecutors' motion to exclude the global warming defense, Benson wrote that there was no "imminent harm" compelling DeChristopher to act, because it was unclear that oil and gas would be drilled, even if the leases were sold to legitimate bidders.

And, he wrote, DeChristopher's actions -- winning 14 of the hundreds of parcels that were being auctioned -- were inadequate to stem the threat. Rather than destroying a house to stop the spread of a fire, Benson wrote, "DeChristopher's actions were more akin to placing a small pile of dirt in the fire's path."

U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said his office is pleased with the ruling.

"We now look forward to pressing on to trial and reaching a final resolution in this case," said Tolman. No trial date has been set.

DeChristopher is charged with two felonies for allegedly derailing the oil and gas lease sale last December and making a fraudulent statement when he registered as a bidder.

At the lease sale, DeChristopher bid more than $1.8 million and won a total of 14 parcels near Canyonlands and Arches national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. He said afterward that he did not intend to pay.

Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman, said it appeared DeChristopher hoped to convince jurors his civil disobedience was morally just and they should nullify the law. That can be legally problematic, Zimmerman said, and Benson apparently decided against letting the jury consider that argument.

"One can take a stance contrary to what the law said you can do," Zimmerman said, "and the civil-disobedience model is you go ahead and accept that punishment."

Some legal experts have said the government wanted to wipe out the civil-disobedience defense because it feared some jurors would side with DeChristopher. At the same time, without that defense, experts have said the U. student may not stand a chance against the charges.

DeChristopher faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines if he is convicted, although Tolman has said that, because the defendant has no criminal record, he likely would receive less than five years.

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How the case got here

Tim DeChristopher disrupted a U.S. Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City. After he bid $1.8 million to win bids on 14 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and drove up bidding on several others, BLM agents removed him from the auction room for questioning.

The University of Utah economics major, who has become a folk hero to many since the lease sale, admitted to his false bidding, saying it was an act of civil disobedience in protest of Bush administration policies that worsened the global climate crisis and threatened the health of everyone on the planet.

On Feb. 4, President Barack Obama's Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, shelved 77 contested lease parcels, including the ones DeChristopher won, and scolded the Bush team for rushing reviews of the disputed sites.

On April 1, a federal grand jury handed up a two-count felony indictment against DeChristopher for violating the terms of the auction he promised to observe when he signed up to bid. He pleaded not guilty April 28.

On Monday, a federal judge refused to let DeChristopher argue in court that he tried to sabotage the auction to combat the climate-change crisis.

No trial date is scheduled.