Lyman ATV protest case: Federal judge recuses himself

Lyman ATV protest case: Federal judge recuses himself

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SALT LAKE CITY — Less than three weeks before a scheduled sentencing, a federal judge has recused himself in the case against San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman for the ATV protest ride he organized and led in Recapture Canyon in May 2014.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby filed an order of recusal Friday, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest because of his close friendship with Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The conservation organization had reportedly urged for Lyman to be prosecuted for his protest ride and joined other organizations in writing to the court to request a robust sentence against Lyman. Bloch also reportedly attended Lyman's trial.

In May, a jury convicted Lyman and Monticello City Councilman Monte Wells of conspiring to operate off-road vehicles on public lands closed to off-road vehicles and operation of off-road vehicles on public lands closed to off-road vehicles.

The misdemeanor convictions could result in up to one year in prison, 12 months of probation and a $100,000 fine for both Lyman and Wells. Federal prosecutors have said they are pushing for both men to serve jail time.

Lyman filed a motion in July asking that Shelby be disqualified from the case. According to Lyman, Shelby should be removed from the trial because of his undisclosed friendship with Bloch. The motion argued Shelby made note of his relationship with Bloch in another set of cases but did not do the same in the case against Lyman.

Lyman said he didn't know about the conflict of interest until after he was convicted.

"Bloch and his wife, Kara, are friends of mine and have been for a long, long time," Lyman's motion quotes Shelby as saying on the record in a status conference concerning the separate cases. "My wife and I have socialized with the two of them since that time, (and) we continue to socialize. My son is close friends with Steve's son. They play on the same soccer team (and are) in the same school class."


Shelby contended in his order of recusal that he didn't know the extent of Bloch's interest in the case until Lyman filed his motion.

"Until Mr. Lyman filed his disqualification motion, the court was unaware of any involvement in this proceeding by SUWA," Shelby wrote.

Lyman also claims Shelby did not require the same stringent impartiality of himself as he did of jurors in the trial, each of whom were asked about their affiliation with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other conservation organizations during the jury selection process.

Shelby countered in his order Friday that "it was the defendants (and not Shelby himself) who asked the court to inquire of potential jurors about their affiliation with conservation groups, including SUWA."

Shelby further argued that the defendants' request for such questioning during jury selection didn't tip him off to his friend's direct involvement in the proceedings against Lyman. He noted that Bloch is not listed as a party in the case.

Another judge was initially in charge of reviewing the merits of Lyman's motion, but Shelby said he wanted to proactively recuse himself in light of his new understanding of his friend's connection to the legal proceedings.

Lyman has also filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the Bureau of Land Management failed to properly show that the road running through Recapture Canyon is in fact protected as a public highway. He said that means he can't be legally faulted for leading and riding with a group of protestors who were angry about the federal government's designation of the land.

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Ben Lockhart


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