Nuts, Nuns and Nukes

The nun who went after the nukes, Sister Megan Rice. Photo credit: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty.

The nun who went after the nukes, Sister Megan Rice. Photo credit: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty.

Having spent a fair amount of time with Joan, my children, and members of the calling, I have tremendous respect for many who belong to the Catholic Workers Movement. On the other hand, I have sent several of them to jail including a very mouthy priest who was a first class asshole. See Crossing the line (May 25, 2013).

Over a well-reasoned dissent by Judge Boggs, and in a 2-1 decision last Friday, the Sixth Circuit reversed sabotage convictions against Megan Rice, 85, a nun, and U.S. Army veterans, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 59. See here for the opinion and dissent. The legal question at issue, and the one the jury answered in the affirmative, is this: Did one or more of these three specifically intend to interfere with or obstruct the national defense?

There is no doubt what these three did. Here is how the New York Times describes what they did:

Now, Sister Megan Rice . . . a Roman Catholic nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and two male accomplices have carried out what nuclear experts call the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex, making their way to the inner sanctum of the site where the United States keeps crucial nuclear bomb parts and fuel.

“Deadly force is authorized,” signs there read. “Halt!” Images of skulls emphasize the lethal danger.

With flashlights and bolt cutters, the three pacifists defied barbed wire as well as armed guards, video cameras and motion sensors at the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee early on July 28, a Saturday. They splashed blood on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility — a new windowless, half-billion-dollar plant encircled by enormous guard towers — and hung banners outside its walls.

After telling the judge“[p]lease have no leniency with me,” and “[t]o remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me,”  Rice was sentenced to three years in the slammer. She has a long history of being a pain in the ass.* Her buddies got five years.

The conviction and sentences should have been upheld for the reasons Judge Boggs sets out clearly and concisely. The panel majority wimped out. These three defendants obviously had the intent to bring Oak Ridge to a halt and they obviously knew that breaking into this facility would adversely impact the national defense if only for a short time. Even the panel majority makes that perfectly clear:

The facility stores highly enriched uranium at a building called the HEUMF (Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility). That was where the defendants hung banners, spraypainted slogans, and so on. They also struck the corner of the building with small hammers. The group’s activities delayed the arrival of a shipment scheduled to arrive that afternoon. The government also shut down the facility for 15 days while it investigated why its security systems had failed to prevent three unarmed citizens from penetrating four layers of fences and multiple “lethal force” zones to reach the HEUMF building.

Slip op. at 3 (emphasis by me).

The Sixth Circuit got it wrong and obviously so. Nuns, and priests and their followers don’t get to sabotage American nuclear facilities because they think they know best. The only good thing about this case is that this goofy gaggle of nuke nuts have already spent a fair amount of time in real prisons. In my experience, that tends to suck the boisterous bravado right out of such people. And that is a damn good thing for the rest of us.


*According to the New York Times, Rice has been arrested 40 or 50 times for acts of civil disobedience and once served six months in prison prior to the Oak Ridge matter.

H/t to the great resource that is How Appealing.


33 responses

  1. Thus continues the long competition between Church and State for moral authority. Personally, I hold stock in neither. The most grating words I’ve ever heard were pronounced by a judge lecturing an innocent man at sentencing. The self-righteousness of his unexamined presumption stunk to high heaven. Personally, I would much prefer a more coldly scientific approach at sentencing, leaving morality out of it entirely, although every one of us remains personally morally responsible for everything we do, whether or not we do it under the color of law.

  2. Did they get a judge’s instruction that the jury decided the law? Unless the Constitution is adhered to scrupulously, you have no cause to complain about lawlessness.

  3. Being annoying to your Red State sensibilities the Holy People maybe and you probably would not invite them to the Rotary, but I think you and Judge Boggs are wrong. The Defendants did what they set out to do, which under the cases did not amount to interference, since they did what they intended to do, which was not interference how could they intend to interfere? This was a clear case of retaliatory overcharging by US Atty in Ten. Reminded of the line from Blake quoted in one of the 19th Century English religious riot cases,”the little crew of errant saints who all men acknowledge the true church militant.”

  4. As you know, judge, I’m a stiff sentence kind of guy, but here I disagree with you. Because I’m in favor of stiff sentences, I’m also at pains, in all my august Texas superiority, to be sure I’ve got the right guy and the right crime.

    …they obviously knew that breaking into this facility would adversely impact the national defense if only for a short time.

    Certainly they knew this. Yet their actions had exactly zero adverse impact on national security. They cut some fences, did some graffiti vandalism, and hung some banners. No threat to national security there. Their activities did lead to the government’s decision to delay a shipment for a couple of weeks, but it was a shipment that was in no way time critical, nor was the shipment involved in a national crisis; the shipment just was not that important. National security was not at risk from the delay.

    It could be argued, in fact, that Sister Rice and her cronies did the government a solid: [the government] investigated why its security systems had failed to prevent three unarmed citizens from penetrating four layers of fences and multiple “lethal force” zones to reach the HEUMF building[]–which building these three unarmed citizens failed to breach or enter. Note: I’m not advocating the trio should be rewarded; they intended to breach and then enter, but they didn’t.

    Along another dimension, “[p]lease have no leniency with me,” and “[t]o remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me,” if Sister Rice could be believed, a lenient sentence was better: prison is supposed to punish (or rehab…); it’s not supposed to reward.

    IMNSHO, the penalty was pretty much exactly right. Should they have served all three-five years, instead of being let out after two from the reversal? I’m not one to quibble.

    Eric Hines

  5. Judge, I read through the transcript of the first trial. It was never proved that there was any damage at all to “national security.” It seems to me that these folks, in fact, did our evidently incompetent national security apparatus a great service. As a result of their patriotic action, the gov’t “investigated why its security systems had failed to prevent three unarmed citizens from penetrating four layers of fences and multiple “lethal force” zones to reach the HEUMF building.” At the very least they deserve a pat on the back.

  6. The sabotage charge came into play, only because they declined to plead guilty to trespass. This is not a case where anybody comes out “clean”. Also, your cursory analysis of the opinion and dissent, glaringly omits the rather vague and nebulous text of the statute.

  7. We had two lifers escape from our “maximum security prison” doing us a great service in showing that escape was possible. However they did not get a pat on the back.

  8. The assumption is that your lifers were murderers. In this case, there was apparently no harm, no foul.

  9. Right. 9/11 happened, and thirteen years and $1 trillion later the government’s got the TSA checking your underwear but it can’t keep a nun out of a nuclear-bomb plant. And she’s the one being prosecuted?

  10. What upsets me with these folks is that when they break into seriously restricted areas so often, it is only a matter of time before someone gets killed. Why should one of the security personnel have to be forced to live with that? I mean if you want attention just handcuff yourself to the chain link fence outside the restricted area. That’s annoying, but at least no one gets killed. Better still, stand outside the gate with a placard- legally.

    When I was in the Navy, every morning I drove through the main gate at the submarine base, there was a single protester with a cardboard sign stating that nuclear war was not the answer. I was told that he was a veteran himself. He did this for years. It was actually a very effective protest. Sometimes we would talk about his lone stand. Many of us agreed with his position-and all of us respected him for being a peaceful protester.

    I think the nuts and nuns could learn a lot from this guy.

    -But I’m still not going to be standing next to you anytime soon after reading this post. God sometimes misses with those lightning bolts he sends forth!

  11. Respectfully, Judge, you’re missing the interesting story — the story that actually has national security implications. As others have commented, what happened to the morons in charge of security at the facility? Everyone from top to bottom was fired, I assume. But were any of them charged with violating the federal statute that says that if you can’t keep an 85-year-old out of the site where the United States keeps crucial nuclear bomb parts and fuel, you’re guilty of criminally negligent stupidity and should be sentenced to serve at least as much time as the nun and her henchmen.

  12. Norm,

    I read the article before my post. I was not impressed. It rather pissed me off.

    I think the prosecution was perfectly fine, and you (and many others) think it was stupid and silly. Your opinion is as good as mine. However, Boggs had it right on the law.

    All the best.


  13. Eric,

    When you enter one of these highly restricted areas with the intention of disrupting the operations resulting in the shutdown of the facility for two weeks and delaying a shipment of fuel the national defense has been harmed. Sure it is slight. But as Boggs said, there is no de minimis exception. A properly instructed jury heard the evidence too, and found enough to convict.

    I worry that this decision will embolden others of like mind. Trust me on this: if you give these folks an inch they will take a mile–in the name of their God.

    All the best.


  14. John,

    I agree that this case has nothing to do with morality. But, in that regard, I can’t help worrying that this bunch got a break at the Sixth Circuit ’cause sending an old nun and two old vets to prison is bad for one’s judicial reputation.

    Also, I agree about sentencing. I almost never lecture. I recite the rote requirements, and send the offenders on their way.

    All the best.


  15. MarcosD,

    On this, we must agree to disagree. I side with the properly instructed jury.

    All the best.


  16. Anon.,

    Great point about the impact on other people. The sad thing is that the nun probably would have been happy to have been shot and killed with no thought to the hell that security people would be forced to live in for the rest of their lives.

    We had a guy picket the federal building for years doing nothing but holding up a sign. Bad weather, good weather, it didn’t matter. He never said a word. He’s gone now. I hope he is OK.

    Re lightening bolts:

    I am the type who stands in the back yard holding up an old golf club pointed at the sky during a thunderstorm. I am trying to see whether God is watching. So far nothing. It may also be that the almighty has a sense of humor.

    All the best.


  17. I am glad the District Court Judge got reversed. His sentence made no sense to me.

  18. Judge, Your claim to trust with regard to Catholic peace activists lacks any empirical substance. I doubt that sentences encourage or discourage them since they do not fit into your deterrence model of sentencing, their motivation is not what the model presupposes. Maybe they should read your article. Certainly there is nothing in the majority opinion about de minimus, rather the court said that what was done did not meet the statutory standard, particularly when interpretation of a vague criminal statute is involved, and all they intended is what they did. Throw away Fox New on Criminal Law. The remark about “their God” is more that a tad over the top.

  19. Judge,

    This is part of our disagreement. The trio’s effect on the facility was not a de minimus impact on national security, it was a zero effect. None. The contents of the building were not impacted. Our nuclear posture was not impacted. Our ability to come to alert and launch was not impacted. Our ability to come to alert and launch conventional forces was not impacted. I say that as a guy who spent 14 years sitting across the fence from the Soviets, often with nuclear weapons under my thumb, always with conventional weapons there.

    There was no national security impact at all. The only way this incident could have had any impact on our national security would have been through their breach and entry. Neither of which they succeeded in doing.

    …give these folks an inch they will take a mile….

    Whether in the name of their God or for any other reason, that doesn’t worry me at all. No solution is permanent. No solution in this particular case can be permanent or broad. That’s why we have cops and courts. And alert citizens. Folks like this trio always will find a way to be offended and act out on their offense; leaving them in jail for their three to five would have had no impact on that bit.

    Eric Hines

  20. Judge:
    Shakespeare wrote that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” I call this a wash. The defendants may have won reversal of their convictions but they lost the larger fight, i.e., successfully imposing their will on the rest of us concerning the use of nuclear weapons. Zealots don’t get to make policy in a free society, irrespective of what the appellate court decided here.

  21. Robert, I think there are earlier sources of the idea of demonic quotes from Scripture, and I do not see its relevance. You may disagree with the Catholic peace movements understanding of their faith, but their good faith is beyond question. Certainly the idea that witness is an effort to coerce is strange enough to be laughable. Moreover if you do not think religious zealotry is a powerful force in our society you have not been paying attention to the abortion or same sex marriage debates. It is the religious right that seems to engage in eisegesis.

  22. Judge, I have some thoughts and comments (mostly serious, but a few smart-assed remarks), but I thought I’d ask first – are you a) up for, and, b) interested in, a Q&A/debate? If not, no worries.

  23. Oliver W.T.F. Homes,

    Sure, have at it. My responses may not be immediate, however. My damn day job!

    All the best.


  24. E,

    You have much more experience with nukes and national defense than I do. I credit what you have to say, but remain unconvinced. But,then again,I have always thought that our national defense required that we nuke Canada.

    All the best.


  25. My dear repentinglawyer:

    Two things.

    Perhaps you are right when you state that my “‘remark about ‘their God’ is more that a tad over the top.'” That admitted, I am told (but I have no personal knowledge) that the Bible tells us to avoid self-righteousness. See, e.g., What does the Bible say about self-righteousness?

    As for my reliance upon Fox News, I refuse to give up MEGYN KELLY or her Court.

    All the best.


  26. Being a product of Jesuit education, I am probably semiPelagian and prone to works righteousness. As to Megyn Kelly her former teachers now at Creighton, including Borchers, say she was an excellent student and a good lawyer, I do not ask you to give her up.More generally I thought I had responded in kind to the tone of your initial post, so perhaps we are both sinners in need of grace.

  27. Irony, satire, and sarcasm often have the effect of pissing people off (yes, I’m talking about you, Jonathan Swift). Your references to snowflakes sometimes do that for me (especially when I feel that you are belittling a serious issue). Doesn’t stop me from reading this blog or thinking about what you have to say.

  28. Pingback: A wry rebuttal to Nuts, Nuns and Nukes « Hercules and the umpire.

  29. Pingback: Sister Megan Rice is free–she is as sassy (and goofy) as ever and boy does she know how to play the media « Hercules and the umpire.

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