National News

Justice Dept. Takes Aim at California to Wrest Control of Public Land Sales

Posted April 2, 2018 8:34 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took aim Monday at a land use law passed by California lawmakers in 2017, the latest salvo in a battle between the two governments that prompted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to complain that the state’s leaders were acting as if they were “above the law.”

The Justice Department sued the state of California, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California State Lands Commission, claiming that the law illegally blocks the federal government’s right to buy and sell federal land. The administration asked the federal court for the Eastern District of California to declare the law unconstitutional and block it from being carried out.

The lawsuit was the second filed by the Trump administration against California, which has emerged as one of the states most strongly opposed to President Donald Trump’s agenda on issues including immigration, criminal justice and environmental protection. In February, the Justice Department sued the state over its immigration policies, saying they interfered with federal immigration enforcement.

The feud has pitted Sessions, a hard-line conservative, against liberal leaders in California who have emerged as vocal opponents of Trump, including Brown and Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general. For his part, Trump has dismissed Brown as Gov. “Moonbeam” and labeled him soft on crime.

The law at issue gives California the right of first refusal in any sale of public lands, an effort to prevent resource exploitation or development that would hurt the state’s interests. The state would have to raise the money to buy the property at market value, or find a buyer.

Justice Department officials said they were prompted to sue after seeing notes that the state put out to federal agencies. The department said in its lawsuit that Congress had given federal agencies the power to control the purchase and sale of federal land, including the parties involved in the deals, the use of the land and when the sales occurs.

According to the lawsuit, the California law has interfered with federal land sales at least four times since it was enacted. In Alameda County, the Army had planned to convey 78 acres to a developer who will construct facilities, and the Navy is trying to sell property to a land developer. The Veterans Affairs Department is hoping to lease part of its land in Los Angeles to provide housing for veterans. And the U.S. Post Office’s plan to auction off a 1.7-acre parcel in Sacramento is at a standstill.

Sessions assailed California’s political leaders in an unusually fiery statement, saying that the fight is distracting Justice Department officials from their work combating illegal gun sales, drug abuse and national security threats. The flurry of legal briefs being filed between the two sides is a waste of taxpayer dollars, he said.

“I regret the need to file yet another lawsuit against the state of California today,” Sessions said, adding, “We are forced to spend our resources to bring these lawsuits against states like California that believe they are above the law.”

He said the issue was compounded by the fact that other potential plaintiffs who want to sue the federal government are seeking judges in California whom they view as more favorable to their causes.

“Government-by-litigation isn’t what the American people voted for, and attempting to thwart an administration’s elected agenda through endless, meritless lawsuits is a dangerous precedent,” he said.

California officials vowed to stand firm.

“Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder,” Becerra said in a statement. “We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources and our values.”

Benjamin Allen, the state senator who was the lead sponsor of the land use bill, pushed for the legislation after former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, proposed that the Interior Department sell or dispose of more than 3 million acres of public land. Chaffetz later withdrew the bill.

“We wanted to make sure that if the government sold off precious public land in California, we would be able to weigh in,” Allen said. “This law created a procedure for us to do that.”

California also has an economic stake in what happens to federal lands. Federally managed lands in the state generated about $3.3 billion a year, much of it from tourism, according to a 2011 study by BBC Research and Consulting.

Tensions between California and federal officials have been building since Trump was elected. State leaders pushed back on the president’s ban on entry by people from some Muslim-majority nations that was unveiled in the first days of his presidency. The state has sued the government over its immigration policies, and local politicians have put aside money to aid immigrants living in the country illegally.