Trump's DOJ Is Suing California For Trying To Protect Public Land From The Administration

Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Last October, the California state legislature passed a bill that claims to give the state the authority to stop the sale of federal land. On Monday, the Trump administration filed a lawsuit against California's land law, arguing that the legislation oversteps the state's legal boundaries. The administration seeks to maintain complete control over California's federal public land, opting to sell or lease it out as it pleases. Californian lawmakers, concerned that their public land could be taken away and used in ways that undermine conservation efforts, passed the law to check the federal government's control.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the state in a federal court in Sacramento. In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that the state's claim to authority was unconstitutional. "The Constitution empowers the federal government — not state legislatures — to decide when and how federal lands are sold," Sessions said. He continued:

California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land. And yet, once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. 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.

California state Attorney General Xavier Becerra responded to the lawsuit on Twitter. "#California's public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder!" he wrote, sharing an article about the issue. "We're prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources, and our values."

The law in question, SB 50, grants California authorities the right of "first refusal," or in other words, the legal ability to block the sale or lease of federal public land as deemed necessary. California lawmakers are widely believed to have passed the legislation as a preemptive move, because the Trump administration has a record for prioritizing commerce and natural resource harvesting over environmental protections.

Republican lawmakers have largely followed suit, as evidenced in instances such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski's move last October to open up parts of an Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. At the time, she characterized the proposal as "a path toward greater prosperity by creating jobs, keeping energy affordable for families and businesses, generating new wealth, and strengthening our security." That proposal passed in December, tacked on to the massive Republican tax overhaul. The decision seemed to indicate that conservationists will need to double down on efforts to preserve, especially, untouched lands.

While the Trump administration is known for prioritizing economic expansion, the lawsuit does put Sessions in the unusual position of arguing against states' rights, generally a reliable tenet of the Republican platform. Usually, conservative politicians vote and legislate toward decentralizing the federal government's power, not toward bolstering it at the expense of individual states.

However, as Michael Stratford writes for Politico, that is less of a given under the Trump presidency, which as Stratford points out, tends to pick and choose states' rights based on the issue at hand. Such inconsistencies are striking when it comes to issues like marijuana legalization, tackling predatory student loan companies, and questions of offshore drilling, Stratford explains. How the Trump administration officials interpret the idea that powers not directly vested in the federal government revert to the state appears to largely depend on how they feel about them.

David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In their argument against California's federal land law, the DOJ argues that the legislation violates the terms under which California joined the United States. Referring to an 1850 law which oversaw California's burgeoning statehood, the DOJ specifically references a clause which appears to give the federal government final control over land in the western state:

...the said State of California is admitted into the Union upon the express condition that the people of said State, through their legislature or otherwise, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits, and shall pass no law and do no act whereby the title of the United States to, and right to dispose of, the same shall be impaired or questioned.

The DOJ's first step is to seek an injunction. How quickly the lawsuit will move forward is yet unclear.