Sidney Longwell, a devoted family man and entrepreneur in the finest tradition of the American Frontier, passed away last month at age 81. A fighter to the last, he died after 38 years of waiting for justice in his lawsuit against the federal government.
It is hard to comprehend the brute force of the federal government until it has been turned against you personally, as it had been against Sidney. As an attorney for people like him, I see that force being used against good men and women every day.
Federal agencies have practically limitless resources to fight court battles, in both money and manpower. They have no competition, no shareholders to placate, and no one person who can be held personally responsible for their malfeasance. They also have the cruelest weapon of all — time.
Sidney purchased a Montana oil and gas lease from the federal government in 1982, passed a decade’s worth of rigorous environmental and archaeological reviews, and was all set to develop the land when government suspended his lease in 1993. He spent 38 years fighting a David-and-Goliath battle to use the leased mineral rights — a battle I’m still fighting as an attorney for his family.
Sidney’s passing reminds me that time really is the most devastating weapon the government has in its arsenal. We can give our clients resources, expertise, and a team of people to fight on their behalf, but sometimes they can’t outlast Uncle Sam.
Despite obtaining drilling approvals four separate times after proving that environmental and tribal cultural concerns were unfounded, federal agencies refused to act, keeping Sidney stuck in bureaucratic purgatory. Ronald Regan was in his first term when Sidney’s struggle began — think about that.
A favorable court ruling in 2016 seemed to promise a resolution. But, given 21 days to come up with a schedule to act, the government dug in its heels instead, abruptly cancelling the lease. Incredibly, the government’s lawyers justified the decision by inventing a procedural defect that contradicted what agency officials had told Sidney for 30 years.
Sidney’s case is just one of many examples of federal agencies weaponizing bureaucratic delay against American citizens. Rather than denying an application or permit that can be appealed, they simply refuse to finish processing the permit, leaving people like Sidney trapped. All the agency needs to do is wait for the person to run out of money or die.
The federal government strung Sidney along for decades, content to let him waste away his golden years waiting for a decision that would never come. After all that waiting, instead of justice, bureaucrats gave him another slap in the face.
What happened to Sidney Longwell is a grave injustice, and one that is becoming too common. Another of my clients, Monte Ray — also in his 80s — is still awaiting a decision on mineral patents he applied for in 1991. Another client: small, family-owned, Colorado oil company WillSource Enterprise, has been fighting the federal government’s delay tactics in processing their permits since 1995.
More than ever, Americans are being governed, not by laws, but by regulations. These regulations are created and enforced by countless unelected and unaccountable officials who staff government agencies.
There is a terrible cost that comes with delegating so much power to this permanent bureaucracy to control our lives. If agency officials wish to prevent you from doing something, they can probably find a way to tie you up in red tape for as long as it takes, knowing you will never be able to outspend or outlast the federal government.
Applying for a permit, as Sidney did, and spending decades fighting in court for the right to use it, should not be the multi-generational legacy inherited from a dying parent.