Courage and cowardice

Andy Matthews

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them.

This week, we saw two very opposite sides of government: the side that values individual rights above the power of the state, and the side that thinks government power trumps any freedoms the people ostensibly have.

It started out on a good note. On Monday, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt held a press conference to announce his office had filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in support of our lawsuit on behalf of Victor Fuentes and his church, Ministerio Roca Solida (Solid Rock Church). 

The attorney general noted the irony of Pastor Fuentes swimming from Santiago, Cuba, to Guantanamo Bay to escape oppression by an unaccountable government, only to come to Nevada to have the federal government take his vested water rights utilizing a diversion dam to reroute a stream off his land — a stream which has traversed that property since as early as 1881.  Adding insult to injury, months after the diversion, the very water taken from the church was returned by way of floodwater when a Christmas eve rainfall caused the water rerouted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to jump its newly and negligently constructed channel, resulting in significant damage to the church camp’s buildings.

Specifically, Laxalt is supporting our effort to have the Supreme Court overrule a lower court decision that, relying on some statutory oddities, found that Victor cannot seek remedy for the multiple rights violations he has endured. Instead, he must choose among them ─ which would of course prevent him from truly being made whole.

But Laxalt also spoke more broadly, and quite passionately, about some of the principles we value most at NPRI: individual liberty, property rights and the freedom to pursue the American Dream.

What happened to Victor is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it was encouraging to see the attorney general take a principled stand in behalf of individual rights.

Unfortunately, the very next day brought something quite different.

In U.S. District Court on Tuesday, U.S. attorneys representing the United States Fish and Wildlife Service argued that the government has complete discretion to flood a person’s property without any legal recourse in negligence.

Yes, you read that right.

Despite having caused nearly $90,000 worth of damage to private property by building a waterway that ­─ by the government’s own admission ─ could only sustain spring flow (and no rainwater flow), the federal government is actually trying to convince a judge that because it allegedly had discretion to reroute the waterway off private property in the first place, it cannot be held liable for any negligent acts it commits in carrying out that action.

In other words, the government believes that so long as it has the discretion to do X, it can’t be held responsible for how it does X ─ even if how it does X results in massive damage and destruction to neighboring private property.

It would follow, then, that if the judge sides with the federal government, agencies would be allowed to haphazardly conduct business with free rein to completely disregard the effects their negligent actions might have on the people they’re supposed to serve.

Really makes you eager to drive over a government-constructed bridge, doesn’t it?

The contrast between what Adam Laxalt said on Monday and what the federal government tried to pull on Tuesday could not be starker.

And it served as a useful reminder. There are indeed good and honorable people in public life who are willing to do the right thing. But there will always be those who will try to avoid accountability, and who will need to be confronted by liberty-loving citizens like you and me.

Until next time,

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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