Court fireworks, but Burning Man deal likely done

AP Photo/ Reno Gazette-Journal

Organizers of the annual weeklong celebration of self-expression and eclectic art known as Burning Man and a Nevada county where it is held thought they had resolved their legal dispute over the festival.

And they hoped to get the blessing of a federal judge overseeing the case, and asked him to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this week. Instead, they got an earful from U.S. District Senior Judge Robert C. Jones, and threats that the lawyers in the case should either go back to law school or be disbarred.

Exactly what in the agreement between festival organizers and Pershing County lawyers prompted Jones' criticism was unclear, though he said the agreement amounted to malpractice.

“You committed virtually a fraud on the federal court and the county commission,” Jones said. He said he'll file complaints with the state bar association against all lawyers involved.

The two sides, however, believe they still have an agreement in their year-old legal battle over regulation of the annual event leading up to Labor Day in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of Reno.

Drawing 60,000 free spirits, it features costumed characters performing guerrilla theater and dancers in nothing but sheer scarves or less. The festival culminates with the burning of a 100-foot-tall wooden effigy. Over the years, so-called Burners claimed authorities were increasingly going on drug busts.

The county has long sought more money to provide security. When organizers balked, the county proposed an ordinance to enable sheriff's deputies to regulate activities it considered “obscene.” One version of the ordinance also would have banned children from attending.

Festival organizers said such a law would violate their First Amendment rights, and sued in federal court. As the case sat before Jones, both sides began negotiating.

The agreement calls for the Burners to pay an estimated $240,000 annually for law enforcement and for meetings between festival organizers and officials to discuss police priorities before and after the event. The county agreed not to pursue the ordinance, or regulate anything that was covered by the festival's permit from the Bureau of Land Management.

“It's absurd and it's illegal,” said Jones, though it wasn't clear what would be illegal about the agreement. Jones said under the agreement the county was waiving its right to enforce state laws, including its ability to keep children from being exposed to people “running around nude on the desert.”

“You give them virtually a veto authority over what the sheriff is doing,” he said.

Both sides said Jones misunderstood.

“We didn't give up any right to enforce any law,” insisted Brent Kolvet, a lawyer for the county.

“We concur,” said Annette Hurst, a lawyer for Burning Man's owner, Black Rock City LLC.

Jones shot back, “I'm sure you do.”

Later, the judge said Kolvet was insulting his intelligence and described one of Hurst's arguments as “mealy-mouthed.” Twice while mocking their positions, he said, “The record will reflect I'm laughing.”

He refused Hurst's first request to speak.

“No. Just take careful notes,” Jones said.

Later, she asked again.

“I'm going to suggest, ma'am, you go back to law school,” he said. “Sit down.”

When Hurst said she was trying to complete a sentence, Jones told his clerk: “Call security.”

“For the last time, sit down,” he said.

Hurst sat and a U.S. marshal arrived seconds later but the hearing continued.

Jones refused to approve the deal and said a formal written ruling would follow.

With the county and Burning Man organizers saying they considered their dispute resolved, it wasn't clear what impact his ruling would have on the agreement.

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