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Three horses are sent to a holding pen
Three horses are sent to a holding pen after being purchased during the second day of a horse auction at the former Leachman Ranch on Sunday, April 3, 2011.

Seth Leachman filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Thursday against Yellowstone County Justice of the Peace Pedro Hernandez for the “emotional distress” caused by Hernandez ordering nearly 70 horses to be moved off a ranch east of Billings.

That means Hernandez is both a defendant in federal court and the judge in a misdemeanor case of animal cruelty against Leachman’s father, James Leachman of Billings. Both Leachmans are representing themselves in court.

Seth Leachman said that on April 20, Hernandez signed a court order requiring removal of the horses from the Home Place Ranch, which the Leachman Cattle Co. used to own.

James Leachman was in Hernandez’s courtroom eight days ago and pleaded not guilty to an eighth primary charge of misdemeanor animal cruelty when the judge ordered the horses removed.

Yellowstone County District Attorney Scott Twito has charged the elder Leachman with multiple counts of animal cruelty for allegedly starving and neglecting to adjust or remove leg bands on the more than 800 quarter horses on the Home Place Ranch. The leg bands injured three horses to the point they had to be euthanized.

James Leachman has pleaded not guilty to all eight primary and eight alternative counts and has asked for a jury trial.

Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs confiscated the Leachman horses for trespassing on tribal trust lands and sold them at a public auction on April 2 and 3. During that auction, Seth Leachman bought 65 of his father’s horses and three foals. After his father presented a cashier’s check $33,133 for the horses, they were immediately turned loose on 800 unfenced acres adjacent to the sales barn that his father had leased from the Crow Tribe.

The horses soon were trespassing again because the leased acres had no water, Deputy County Attorney Ingrid Rosenquist said in court. When James Leachman said he didn’t own the horses, the judge set a 10-day deadline to move them.

In his lawsuit, Seth Leachman said the judge’s order has caused him “emotional distress” and travel expenses in trying to find suitable pasture. The order interferes with his contractual rights with his father to use the Crow Tribal leases, Seth Leachman argued.

He said Hernandez’s ruling also violates his property rights protected under the 14th Amendment.

His federal lawsuit cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that even judges with “absolute civil immunity for centuries, could be punished criminally for willful deprivations of Constitutional rights.”

Seth Leachman is asking for damages to be determined by a jury, punitive damages and court costs.

His federal lawsuit won’t affect the county’s animal cruelty case against his father, Twito said.

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull. Cebull presided over the lengthy court case involving James Leachman’s delinquent debt on his ranches. In 2006, Cebull ordered the federal government to sell Leachman’s personal ranch, the Hairpin Ranch, and his company’s Home Place Ranch to pay off his creditors.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 406-657-1306.

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