MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. – Federal judge Mark Carman steps cautiously out of the federal courthouse. He's worried about where a 700-pound elk with a wicked looking set of antlers has gone.
The bull spent the morning herding its harem of cows around the parking area in front of the courthouse, forcing tourists and security guides alike to duck behind cars or into buildings as the wild animal stalked the area. A few days earlier, the same bull attacked a tourist about 100 yards away when the man failed to get out of the animal's way during the fall mating season known as the rut.
"He's a beaut," Carman says of the elk. "But you don't mess with those guys. I am very careful."
Animal attacks are an ever-present danger for Carman, the cowboy-hatted magistrate judge overseeing a tiny outpost of federal justice more than 2,000 miles away from Washington, D.C. Carman is one of only two judges presiding full time over federal cases within national parks, and his Wyoming courtroom at Mammoth Hot Springs inside the park handles an unusually broad docket, the legacy of the Army's presence in this remote corner of a state that averages just six residents per square mile.
And the cases run the gamut: Tourists trespassing onto hot springs. Poachers killing wildlife. Campers abusing their wives. Drunk drivers crashing. Kids getting caught with booze. Carman once convicted a man for putting a bison calf into his car in a misguided attempt to keep it warm, and ordered an 11-year-old boy to write an essay explaining why it was wrong to steal petrified wood. He lectures people caught illegally flying drones and shakes his head at tourists who try to pet elk.
None of the more than 1,200 park-related cases that come before him annually are more serious than a misdemeanor. More serious hearings are held in other federal courts, where it's easier to assemble juries.
"I have somewhat of a reputation for being hard on natural resources cases," Carman said. "This job was created to save the park. It wasn't created for speeding tickets, DUIs, it wasn't created for possession of drugs. It was created to save and protect this park."
Created as the world's first national park in 1872, Yellowstone predates the National Park Service itself, and for 30 years was overseen and protected by the Army, which created the park's headquarters campus at Mammoth Hot Springs. Today, Mammoth still feels like an Army post, with neat rows of stone buildings along Barracks Street and Officers Row. Back then, soldiers patrolled the park to protect its geysers, fossilized wood, timber and abundant wildlife from poachers.
The park covers an area nearly twice the size of Delaware and includes pieces of both Idaho and Montana, along with the northwest corner of Wyoming. And with few exceptions, every official crime ends up before Carman.
Carman, who took his post in 2013, is only the fifth judge to hold the position created by Congress in 1894. The next-closest federal court in Wyoming is a six-hour drive away. Yosemite National Park in California has a similar arrangement.
The judge often carries heavy-duty pepper spray on his five-minute walking commute between home and the courthouse just in case he crosses paths with an amorous elk, hungry bear or unpredictable bison, the park's true residents who draw 4.1 million tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park annually.
Yellowstone attracts visitors from around the world. Many pass through on tour buses cruising between the most popular areas, from the Old Faithful geyser to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone waterfalls. Millions more drive through in cars and RVs, reaching more remote areas like the Lamar Valley, where wolves and grizzlies live among the bison that cause traffic jams by walking across the road without regard for passing vehicles.
Because Yellowstone is federal property, park rangers are the sole law enforcement agency patrolling its 251 miles of road. There are also tens of thousands of visitors who stay overnight in the 12 campgrounds or nine rustic lodges, and these guests can bring with them the same challenges of any small town, from public intoxication to domestic violence and theft.
The vast majority of the cases Carman handles are traffic-related, a reflection of the National Park Service's decision to prioritize traffic enforcement over virtually every other kind of case within the park service system. Most of the traffic violations get resolved when drivers pay a fine, usually for speeding. Carman handles the cases requiring a mandatory court appearance, usually for particularly fast drivers or people accused of drunk or stoned driving.
The unusual nature of the court extends to the lawyers themselves: Defense attorney Alex Freeburg remembers camping in the park with his wife, bathing in a nearby hot spring and then changing into a suit before his first appearance before Carman a few years ago.
"It's a fun little slice of history," Freeburg said.
Back in time
Inside his small chambers at the courthouse, Carman maintains his connection to the overall federal system with a high-speed Internet connection and his phone, perhaps his most important tool. Unlike most judges, who generally insist on personal appearances, Carman acknowledges that the vast distances and long drives in Yellowstone mean lawyers can't always appear in person, and neither can their clients, often tourists who live internationally.
The few defense attorneys who routinely appear in Carman's courtroom say they're thankful he permits so many phone calls but acknowledged there's no substitute for an in-person hearing. Defense attorney Chris Leigh, 61, who has been practicing in Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park for more than 30 years, said the generally slower pace in Carman's courtroom gives the judge time to truly understand each case before him.
"It takes you back in time," Leigh said. "It's not like calling case No. 40-12 and going through the paperwork. It's a meet and greet. It's, 'Who are you, where are you from, how did we get here, and how are we going to address this problem?'"
On a recent fall day, Carman heard a handful of cases brought to him by Lee Pico, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park. Among the cases: a young man who admitted to driving stoned, a woman caught speeding and driving drunk, and a man who got into a drunken fight with his girlfriend.
For each, Carman carefully explained the defendant's rights, asked questions about their personal lives, carefully accepted their guilty pleas and then pronounced sentences, which for the man accused of fighting with his girlfriend included a lifetime ban from the park starting later that day.
From the bench, Carman's silver bolo tie clasp shines beneath the collar of his black robe as he leans forward to address the room.
"Study hard, get a good job and have a good life – that's all I'm asking," Carman told one of the defendants.
A lonely post
Carman takes seriously his connection to the park's history, explaining to a visitor the background of Yellowstone's first federal judge, John Meldrum, who served for 41 years, starting with 1894 congressional passage of the Lacy Act, which created the position and gave him the power to punish crimes committed within the first national park. Meldrum wasn't even a lawyer, but he set the tone for all the other judges to follow: protect the park and its wildlife and resources.
"Try to imagine the difference in the world between 1894 and 1935. I have transcripts of him doing a (preliminary hearing) on a stagecoach robbery. And he did a number of those," Carman said. "He was here in Prohibition. It was an amazing thing to stay that long. What an amazing thing."
Carman, a graduate of the University of Wyoming's law school, started his career as a prosecutor before becoming an attorney specializing in civil litigation. He had always been interested in the Yellowstone position, he said, and knew there was fierce competition when he applied.
What he didn't realize, he said, was how lonely the job would be. Because Mammoth has only about 250 full-time residents, there's no way for him to disappear into the community. Walking to the post office or home for lunch is an exercise in recognition, and the long drive to anywhere else means it's hard to socialize with colleagues in Casper or Cheyenne.
His small plane, bought when he was an attorney in private practice handling civil cases, helps bridge some of the distance, but even that's parked 100 miles away in Bozeman.
"You have friends and I have my family here, but you always, in a community of this nature, you are the judge," he said. "You are the judge to everybody. You are always the judge, you are always being watched. You represent the court 24/7."
Even judicial conferences are hard to attend: They're usually held during summer months when other courts are slow. But because Yellowstone is busiest then, Carman doesn't dare leave since there's no backup to sign warrants for the park rangers, who need his approval three or four times a week at night. During one recent hearing, Carman never mentioned to one young man that his decision to drive stoned meant rangers called the judge at 12:30 a.m. for a warrant approval.
"I always say, leave it out of Yellowstone. Get high on nature," Carman said of the increasing number of marijuana cases brought before him.
When he does get to talking with colleagues, Carman admitted one topic comes up regularly: the so-called "Zone of Death" within Yellowstone, highlighted in 2005 by a Michigan State University law professor. The death zone refers to a tiny, uninhabited portion of Yellowstone in Idaho, and the challenge of holding a jury trial for someone accused of committing a serious crime there, like murder, because there would be no residents to serve on a jury.
Because no one has ever tested that potential loophole, Carman said he won't talk publicly about it: "I have some thoughts," he said, "but I'll keep them to myself."
Back at his courthouse, Carman focuses on more mundane matters: Does the defendant understand her rights? Does the prosecutor have enough evidence to bring charges? Should he offer a young man 14 months of probation in return for having a drug arrest wiped from his record?
"Some people, they don't care what the rules are. They are above the rules. Those people I punish harder," Carman said later. "Some people just don't bother to learn what the rules are, and I try to deal with those a little differently."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National parks: Federal judge oversees wild court at Yellowstone