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John L. Smith on Bundy family and ACLU of Nevada fight with Family Court

Regional Justice Center
AP Photo/John Locher
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Flags fly at the Regional Justice Center, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Family courts in Nevada can close hearings without saying why they’re doing it. The ACLU of Nevada is suing to change that.

The ACLU is suing on behalf of Our Nevada Judges, a small media site that focuses on the local judicial system.

They want Family Court to be more transparent.

But that’s led to questions of privacy, especially for juveniles caught in up in legal matters often instigated by their parents.

He said the court handles divorce matters, child custody and visitation, spousal support, property division, name changes, adoption and more.

The U.S. Supreme Court has given the press access to courts as part of their First Amendment right. But why should people care if the media gets access to family court, which aren't typically criminal?

"We're talking about an open process, we're talking about judges elected by the public, paid by the public with a system, that's an important system, and also a large part of our criminal justice system. So it deserves scrutiny," Smith said.

It's personal to Smith, who has an adopted child. 

"For folks who have experienced Family Court, it's quite personal," he said. "I think that absolutely demands that the process remain open, or at least if a judge is going to close a hearing, that they give a reason for it, that there may be perhaps a balancing test that comes into play."


From Family Court to a family that's been in court more than most, the Bundys: The 2014 Bundy ranch standoff that pitted Southern Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy and his family and followers against the federal government was back in the news recently, when it was mentioned during the house January 6 hearings.

Jason Van Tatenhoven testified that events surrounding the standoff drew him into the far right Oathkeepers group, which played a key role in the Capitol riot. 

Smith explained further:

"He gave an insider's perspective of the rise of the Oathkeepers, which has told the public that it's basically a more fraternal organization of constitutionalists. Van Tatenhoven made it very clear that he believes that the Oathkeepers are a militia group and a dangerous one, a very dangerous organization, as he said, and he was drawn to that group. ... At the Bundy ranch standoff, he saw Stewart Rhodes on the ground. Stewart Rhodes is the leader of the Oathkeepers. Rhodes was essentially at odds at times with other militia types that converged on the so-called Camp Liberty that was set up outside the ranch for those visitors. He was drawn to that group, he became a spokesperson for the group, and managed their website, which is an important thing since they rely on social media to get out their vision of the world and their propaganda. And he brought all that to the committee hearing really, for the first time. Remember, the January 6 attempt and insurrection included? Those Oathkeepers were essentially in uniform ready for battle in a stack formation entering the Capitol military style."

Van Tatenhoven is now a tattoo artist, Smith said. He said he left the Oathkeepers when he overheard his comrades denying the Holocaust.

Are the Bundys still relevant, after all these years? Smith said they represent a lynchpin for the far-right movement, as well as Cliven's conflict with the BLM.

"You have to give them credit for being relentless ... they haven't changed much over the years," Smith said. "I also think that as you interview other ranchers around Nevada, other ranchers have found a way to get along with the BLM."

John L. Smith, State of Nevada contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.