The Justice Department on Monday again took aim at California, suing over a new law that forces the federal government to give the state’s land commission the option to buy federal land before it can be transferred to another owner.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Eastern District of California, alleges the state’s law violates the Constitution and should be blocked. The law was meant to preempt the Trump administration from selling land state leaders felt worthy of conservation, such as national parks or monuments, though some officials warned from the start it might face legal challenges.
The case marks the second time the Justice Department in the Trump administration has sued California over laws it calls unconstitutional. Last month, the department alleged in a another lawsuit that the state’s “sanctuary” laws, which impose policies generally friendly to undocumented immigrants, obstruct enforcement of federal immigration law and harm public safety.
“The Constitution empowers the federal government — not state legislatures — to decide when and how federal lands are sold,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal law. And yet, once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”
The latest suit is likely to generate less controversy than the first, though it escalates the federal government’s conflict with its most populous state. The federal government owns about 46 million acres in California.
California state Sen. Ben Allen (D), who wrote the legislation, said in an interview that the law was “very carefully crafted” and meant mainly to ensure that the state would have an opportunity to intervene in major instances in which the federal government wanted to sell off land worthy of conservation.
He pointed to a draft infrastructure plan which suggested the government might be exploring selling off federal lands, though President Trump and his interior secretary have said they are not looking to do so.
“We’ve got a different outlook here, and you know, look, I think that Jeff Sessions, of all people, should know the value of allowing states with different perspectives to do things the way they want to do things, within reason,” Allen said. “This is a perfect example of that. We value our public lands, and it’s an important part of being in California.”
Allen said while there was “no question that the state can’t tell the federal government that it cannot sell land,” the bill focused “on the registrar recording process, which the courts have held pretty clearly belong in the hands of the locals.”
In a statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said he was “prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources, and our values.”
“California didn’t become our nation’s economic engine and the sixth-largest economy in the world by just sitting back. We blaze trails, we innovate, and we engage in smart stewardship of our precious public lands. Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder,” he said.
The administration has for months taken an aggressive posture toward California. Sessions announced recently he was reversing Obama-era guidance on charging marijuana cases, making it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce federal laws on the drug even in states, such as California, that have legalized it.
Last month, after the Justice Department filed its lawsuit over the sanctuary policies, Sessions traveled to California and lambasted state leaders, referencing Abraham Lincoln and secession in a fiery speech about immigration enforcement and the power of the federal government.
“There is no nullification. There is no secession,” Sessions said. “Federal law is the supreme law of the land. I would invite any doubters to go to Gettysburg, or to the tombstones of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. This matter has been settled.”
Trump also recently took aim at California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for pardoning five ex-convicts facing deportation, writing on Twitter, “Is this really what the great people of California want?”
California leaders have bristled at the Justice Department’s moves against their state. Brown said the department’s lawsuit over the state’s sanctuary laws was “basically going to war against the state of California.”
Justice Department officials said California’s law on federal lands drew their notice when the state’s land commission began issuing letters about various, somewhat mundane transfers of federal property around military and veterans affairs facilities. Acting U.S. associate attorney general Jesse Panuccio said the measure was “extreme,” and Justice Department lawyers could find it in no other state.
Allen said the bill spelled out a process for the land commission to come up with a regulation so routine requests would be automatically waived through. He predicted that 99 percent of cases would be “expedited without a blink.”
“We’re not doing this to jam up the federal government needlessly. We want to work with the federal government,” Allen said. “This is a protection for extreme cases.”