- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Federal prosecutors are defending a judge accused of bias by a county commissioner who was convicted in a protest ride on all-terrain vehicles through ancient ruins.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a court motion Tuesday saying the allegations made by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman are unfounded.

Lyman’s attorneys are asking that U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby be disqualified from the case due to his longtime friendship with Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Association.

Lyman is awaiting sentencing after a jury found him guilty of misdemeanors.

Bloch’s organization was not a party in the lawsuit, but Lyman says it has advocated for a stiff sentence for Lyman.

Judge Shelby and Bloch have both declined comment.

Prosecutors said Bloch and his organization played no role in the decision to charge Lyman and did not interfere in any way during the trial. They say the environmental group joined with other groups in sending a letter asking for punishment “commensurate with the severity of the crime,” but said Bloch didn’t personally contact Shelby.

They push back against the notion that Judge Shelby should have recused himself, saying judges commonly have connections to law offices where they used to work or have friends and professional colleagues. Though Shelby recuses himself from cases where Bloch is the attorney on behalf of Southern Utah Wilderness Association, he keeps cases from the group when Bloch is not representing the organization.

Under Lyman’s school of thought, judges would have to “recuse themselves in nearly every case because, unless a judge is bereft of any family or friends, the interests of the groups with which friends and family affiliate will be imputed to a judge even though those groups are not participating in the matter before the judge,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote.

In May 2014, Lyman and about 50 others rode their ATVs on a trail off-limits to vehicles in a canyon that cuts through ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old and is home to dwellings, artifacts and burials left behind by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago, before they disappeared. There were no confrontations during the ride.

It came shortly after Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy had a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over similar issues, illustrating the simmering tension between the federal government and some residents in the West over land use.

In May, a jury found Lyman and blogger Monte Wells guilty. It acquitted two others.

Lyman and Wells were found guilty of misdemeanor charges of illegal use of ATVs and conspiracy. Each carries a potential penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine of $100,000. Sentencing is set for July 15.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently asked the state attorney general to investigate whether the federal government acted illegally in the closure of a remote canyon trail that was the site of an ATV protest last year. The action came after state lawmakers donated cash from their pockets to help defend Lyman.

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