The Trump administration has escalated its legal battle with California announcing Monday that the Department of Justice has sued California over a state law that gives California the power to block the sale of federal land to private parties.
Passed in October, Senate Bill 50 went into effect Jan. 1. It gave state officials the right to purchase any federal land in California before the U.S. government sells it. At the time, California officials said the bill was necessary because of fears President Trump would permit drilling or development on the roughly 46 million acres of land in California owned by the federal government.
Justice Department officials say the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy and Property clauses. The Supreme Clause puts federal law ahead of state law when there is a conflict and the Property Clause gives Congress the power to sell or transfer federal land.
No other state has a similar statute, Justice Department officials said Monday.
“Once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
“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 to buy, sell, exchange or donate federal properties in a lawful manner in the national interest,” Mr. Sessions said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that California would respond to the lawsuit.
“Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder,” he said. “We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources and our values.”
California officials claim the state doesn’t interfere with the actual sale of federal lands, but rather prevents the transfer deeds from being recorded. The deed is how an owner can borrow money or get insurance for the land because it makes the sale public.
Deed recording is governed by state laws so California officials contend the legislation does not violate the Supremacy Clause.
Under the legislation, anyone knowingly recording a federal land transfer without certification from California’s state government is subject to a $5,000 fine.
A senior Justice Department official said Monday the refusal to record a deed versus actually blocking the sale from being completed is a “distinction without a difference.”
The Trump administration said the bill has put three specific transfers at risk. Those deals include the Department of Army’s plan to exchange about 78 acres of federal land in Dublin, California, to a private developer for construction of facilities for the Camp Parks Army training ground; the Department of Navy’s contract to sell land formerly used for military housing at Admiral’s Cove in Alameda, California, to a private developer; and a Department of Veterans Affairs deal to build housing for local veterans on its 388-acre campus in west Los Angeles.
Filed Monday in Sacramento, the lawsuit names the state of California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, and the California State Lands Commission as defendants.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is also a member of the Lands Commission and running for governor as well, also promised to fight the Trump administration.
“Safeguarding public lands is in our DNA as Californians — so much so that we have enshrined the principle in our state constitution,” he said. “We will use every legal and administrative tool to thwart Trump’s plans to auction off California’s heritage to the highest bidder.”
But Acting Deputy Attorney General Jesse Panuccio told reporters Monday, the law is “another example of California avoiding federal law, and no state legislature can, statute by statute, undermine the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.
“Whether California legislators and the governor like it or not, they must comply with the terms of their admission to the union and their oaths of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution.”
The move escalates the war between California and the Trump administration. Last month, the Justice Department sued California over its sanctuary city policies for illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump also blasted Mr. Brown for pardoning five illegal immigrants who are facing possible deportation.
“Governor Jerry ‘Moonbeam’ Brown pardoned 5 criminal illegal aliens whose crimes include (1) Kidnapping and Robbery (2) Badly beating wife and threatening a crime with intent to terrorize (3) Dealing drugs. Is this really what the great people of California want? @FoxNews,” Mr. Trump tweeted Saturday.
The pardons were among 70 pre-Easter clemency actions granted by Mr. Brown.
Since 2017, California has filed 24 lawsuits over 17 different subject areas, according to a study by the Sacramento Bee. The lawsuits range from moves to crack down on illegal immigrants, replace Obamacare and roll back environmental regulations. In many of the lawsuits, Mr. Becerra argues that California will suffer disproportionate harm if the policies are enacted.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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