CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge received improper proposals — which he neither reviewed nor considered — regarding how he should decide on the high-profile corner-crossing trespass case, according to a ruling he filed Friday.
Chief U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl commented on the irregular suggestions as he concluded that four Missouri hunters were not guilty of trespass for crossing through the airspace above a corner of Fred Eshelman’s Elk Mountain Ranch in Carbon County.
Before making his decision in the civil case “and with greater frequency in recent weeks,” there were various attempts by phone and email to sway him, Skavdahl wrote. That lobbying came from people who were not authorized to participate, making it improper under court rules and the general concept of justice.
“These submissions have come from people who are not parties to this case, and who, unlike the [approved] parties, have not been given permission by the court to tender a submission that can be viewed and responded to by all parties,” Skavdahl wrote. “[T]he court has neither reviewed, or considered the submissions as part of examining the issues in this case.”
Interested parties have an avenue to participate in such legal skirmishes and several took advantage of that in the civil suit brought by Eshelman. Skavdahl’s court granted Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Wyoming Wool Growers Association “amicus” status, for example, allowing them to file briefs supporting their interpretations of trespass laws.
But others are not supposed to have what’s known as ex-parte, or one-sided, communications with the judge, according to judicial rules and practices. Court staff filtered the surge of “improper submissions,” the judge wrote.
The hunters never set foot on Eshelman’s land as they stepped from one piece of public property to another in an area of checkerboard-pattern land ownership, according to court filings. Yet, their hunts on public land in 2020 and 2021 resulted in criminal charges and Eshelman’s civil suit.
A Carbon County jury found Bradly Cape, Phillip Yeomans, John Slowensky and Zach Smith not guilty of criminal trespass last year.
Eshelman filed his civil suit seeking more than $7 million in damages and it advanced from state to federal court due to the involvement of federal property managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In Friday’s ruling, Skavdahl said that corner crossing on foot in the checkerboard area does not constitute trespass.
An attorney for the hunters said he expected an appeal. Skavdahl also found that one issue — not related to corner crossing — remains undecided.
That’s whether digital marker “Waypoint 6” placed by hunter Smith in the onX Hunt mapping app proves he was on Elk Mountain Ranch at one point. Smith said he never set foot on the ranch and his lawyers say Waypoint 6 could have been made from anywhere.
A trial date for that remaining issue is set for June. If the Waypoint 6 kerfuffle does go before a jury, Eshelman could receive no more than nominal damages of $100 if he prevails, Skavdahl wrote Friday.
Meantime, the judge penned a lesson in jurisprudence, first by quoting precedent. “Whereas the fundamental function of a legislature in a democratic society, assumes accessibility to [public] opinion, the judiciary does not decide cases by reference to popular opinion.”
“The founders of the United States sought to insulate the Judicial branch of government from public opinion so judges could apply and be influenced only by the law, not by popular opinion or public polling,” Skavdahl wrote. “The court has done its utmost to decipher the applicable law and apply it to the facts of this and every case.
“To the extent of this court’s determination of the law is believed to be erroneous, the remedy is for a party to take in an appeal.”