Trump administration sues California over state law on federal land transfers
By Adam Wren
The suit, filed in federal court in Sacramento on Monday, contends that the state law is unconstitutional because it interferes with Congress’ right to control the sale of federal property.
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California’s Legislature adopted the law last October at the urging of environmentalists concerned that the Trump administration was readying plans to sell off federal land for real estate development, mining or drilling.
The new suit was filed by the Justice Department less than a month after the federal government sued California over three other state laws widely viewed as enacting “sanctuary” policies aimed at blocking aggressive immigration enforcement by the Trump administration.
That suit grabbed headlines, but lawyers for the state and attorneys for the federal government have been battling in court for months over more than two dozen lawsuits California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has brought on issues ranging from the president’s so-called travel ban to rollbacks of birth control coverage under Obamacare to efforts to ban transgender people from serving in the military.
Justice Department officials expressed frustration Monday with the tactics California’s legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown have used to register their disagreement with Trump policies.
“California has, once again, passed an extreme statute found in no other state to obstruct the federal government, this time by interfering with the conveyance of federal lands,” acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio told reporters. “This is another example of California ignoring federal law. No state legislature can, statute by statute, undermine the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.”
In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said California officials are not only ignoring the Constitution, but also the very terms under which California became a state in 1850.
“California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land,” Sessions said. “The Justice Department shouldn't have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the rightful prerogatives of the U.S. military, the Interior Department and other federal agencies.”
A Justice Department official said he and his colleagues aren’t singling out California but are responding to an unprecedented series of legal provocations from the state.
“To the extent it looks like we’re focusing on California, that is really a product of the extreme nature of the laws California is passing in recent days,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are passing laws no other state is passing or has thought to pass and that's because they’re unconstitutional.”
Justice Department officials said they did not discuss legal concerns about the bill with the state before the suit was filed Monday. They said, however, that state officials are well aware of the legal problems, because the state Legislature's official analysis of the bill issued prior to its passage noted a “strong possibility” that the measure would be found unconstitutional.
Becerra vowed to defend the California law, and he said the state will continue its aggressive legal campaign against Trump policies.
“California didn’t become our nation’s economic engine and the sixth-largest economy in the world by just sitting back,” the California attorney general said in a statement. “Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder. We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources, and our values.”
The state law, known as Senate Bill 50, requires that the California State Lands Commission have right of first refusal on any land transfer planned by the federal government. Federal officials say the law has already scuttled or bogged down planned transfers of several federal properties to developers, often under plans that were the subject of extensive negotiation with local officials.