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Civil Disobedience on Trial: Tim DeChristopher Convicted

How does the United States try cases of civil disobedience? Defendant Tim DeChristopher on how much has changed since the founding fathers.

Tim DeChristopher, photo by Daphne Hougard

Photo by Daphne Hougard

Today, climate activist Tim DeChristopher was found guilty on two felony charges. His crime? Disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases on public lands by bidding $1.8 million he didn't have on more than 22,000 acres of land, an action that got the auction results thrown out long enough for the Obama administration to rule the process illegitimate.

He now faces up to 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Following the verdict, DeChristopher said, “I have no regrets. I have been ready since I took this action to face the consequences.”

The United States, of course, has a long history of civil disobedience. Henry David Thoreau coined the term when he wrote about his refusal to pay a poll tax that would have supported the United States' war against Mexico. If government, he wrote, "is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."

Thoreau wasn't willing to comply with a law that would violate his principles. In other cases, people of principle have chosen to directly break unjust laws in hopes of highlighting, and fixing, their injustice—for example, during the movement for women's suffrage. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Jay referred to the responsibility of a jury "to judge the law as well as the fact;" Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued, "If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable."

In DeChristopher's case, however, the judge refused to admit evidence related to his motivations for bidding in the auction: his belief that climate change is a serious threat to life on Earth. Contrary to the Jeffersonian ideal, the jury was urged to judge the facts—did DeChristopher break the law?—and not the law itself. During DeChristopher's testimony, the word "climate" wasn't used once.

About a week before the trial began, I spoke with Tim DeChristopher about why civil disobedience cases work this way and what this process has taught him about our legal system.

[Click here for the rest of the interview, in which DeChristopher dicusses the potential impact of civil disobedience for growing the power of the climate justice movement as well as the personal commitment and cost of taking a stand.]


Brooke Jarvis: What are you focusing on for your defense? What are your expectations?

We could have actually asked the jury to make a decision about whether or not I was preventing greater harm by keeping that oil from being extracted and burned. But the judge has prohibited that defense.

Tim DeChristopher: It's quite clear at this point what I did on the day of the auction. I've never tried to hide that; I've told that story a lot of times. The question that remains is whether or not it's actually a crime. We'll be trying to tell as much of that story as possible. The judge will tell us that we can't say certain things, but I think that some of it will be able to get through. There is still the possibility of acquittal, but I think the most likely scenario is probably that I will be convicted. The prosecution has been very clear that they're hoping to make an example out of me, to convince other people not to fight the status quo.

Brooke Jarvis: How much can the judge restrict what argument you make or what evidence you introduce?

Tim DeChristopher by barn, photo by Daphne Hougard

More Powerful Than We Know






Tim DeChristopher on why "we have more than enough power" to stop the fossil fuel industry.

Tim DeChristopher: The judge has limited me from using what's called the necessity defense—the argument that I was acting out of necessity to prevent greater harm. That defense would have allowed me to clearly state my motivations, what the problems were with this auction, and why I thought that to allow the auction to continue would have created greater harm than standing in the way of it. We could have actually asked the jury to make a decision about whether or not I was preventing greater harm by keeping that oil from being extracted and burned. But the judge has prohibited that defense.

It still remains to be seen how much we’ll be allowed to talk about the fact that the government has already admitted the auction was illegal, due to the laws that weren’t being followed as well as the threat of climate change. We'll be trying to bring up those issues, to let the jury know that this auction was canceled anyway because the government admitted that it was fraudulent in the first place. Maybe the judge will let us say that to the jury and maybe he won't; at this point we don’t know.

Brooke Jarvis: Is it common in trials of this kind to restrict people from using the necessity defense?

If the government passed a bill out of line with the values of the community, people were expected to break that law and then take their case before a jury of their peers, which could then decide whether or not that person's actions were justified.

Tim DeChristopher: It's become almost universal in civil disobedience cases. The judge has the prerogative to limit what the jury is allowed to hear. The trend in the evolution of our legal system has been to minimize the role of the jury and maximize the role of the judge—the judge has enormous control over what the jury is doing and what they're hearing.

Brooke Jarvis: I imagine you've learned quite a bit about the legal process as a result of all this. What's been the most surprising?

Tim DeChristopher: Mainly the way that the role of the jury has changed. When our country was founded, the jury was considered the most important part of our civic responsibilities. The founding fathers insisted that the jury was the conscience of the community, the most important opportunity citizens had for holding their government accountable to the Constitution and defending against tyranny. If the government passed a bill that was out of line with the values of the community, people were expected to break that law and then take their case before a jury of their peers, which could then decide whether or not that person's actions were justified.

Video: Amy Goodman interviews Tim DeChristopher.

But that role has largely been eliminated. Judges now specifically tell jurors not to use their conscience in making the decision. They’re told, “It's not up to you to decide whether this ruling is just, it's not your job to decide about the wisdom of the law or what constitutes justice. We’ll tell you what the law is and you tell us if it was broken.” That's a really radical departure from the way our legal system was established.

I think it prevents any kind of concept of a fair trial, because for a trial to be fair the player with the most influence in the courtroom has to be the neutral party. My case is called The United States of America v. Tim DeChristopher, and certainly the prosecutor represents the United States because he's paid by the U.S. government. But the judge is also paid by the U.S. government. That obvious reality didn't escape our founding fathers, which is why they insisted on jury trials—juries are the only figures in the courtroom that are actually a neutral party. They realized there's no way you can have a fair trial if the neutral figure doesn't have the authority to make whatever ruling that they want. In a football game, if you have a referee that's being paid by one of the teams, there's no way you could have a fair game.


Brooke Jarvis

Brooke Jarvis interviewed Tim DeChristopher for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.

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