(CN) — After a federal judge found the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management had been serving in the position unlawfully for over a year, the same judge has now struck down a trio of actions taken while he was at his post.
William Perry Pendley, 75, found himself thrust into a legal battle over the validity of his position earlier this year when Democratic Governor of Montana Steve Bullock filed a lawsuit against Pendley and the BLM with allegations that he was improperly serving in his role as acting director.
Bullock pointed to the fact that under President Donald Trump, not a single chief of the BLM, a crucial agency within the Department of the Interior responsible for overseeing and managing over 200 million acres of public land, has been officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Each one has served in the position in an acting capacity only, Pendley included, who was appointed to the job by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt last year.
Bullock claimed that with the Trump administration allowing Pendley to serve in the position for so long without an official confirmation hearing, Pendley’s tenure stood in direct violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
In September, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, an Obama appointee, agreed with Bullock and removed Pendley from his position. Morris determined that for now only the Secretary of the Interior can perform the duties of the BLM director and ruled the president was out of line to rely so heavily on acting or temporary federal officials.
“The President cannot shelter unconstitutional ‘temporary’ appointments for the duration of his presidency through a matryoshka doll of delegated authorities,” Morris wrote in the September order.
Morris also asked both parties to bring forward briefs on what actions Pendley took during his time as acting BLM head that should be set aside as unlawful, given that they were issued by an acting director who lacked the correct authority.
On Friday, the judge ruled that a small handful of actions taken by Pendley are indeed unlawful and should be set aside, but denied a request to more broadly assess Pendley’s other decisions.
In a ten-page order, Morris determined that two Montana Resource Management Plans (RMPs), one for Lewistown and one for Missoula, as well as an RMP amendment for Miles City, were both reviewed and approved by Pendley improperly.
The BLM sought to defend Pendley’s actions by attempting to suggest that he did not directly perform actions related to some of those RMPs but rather delegated the actions to other BLM officials, thereby making the actions lawful.
Morris, however, was not convinced.
The judge claimed that such “novel and last-ditch legal arguments” are not supported by the record before the court, and that even if he did choose to accept the argument as valid, delegating authority as acting BLM director would still be just as unlawful as exercising that authority firsthand.
Conservation groups made up of the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and Wildearth Guardians asked the judge if they could file more briefs that would further explore other, more sweeping actions taken by Pendley in other areas of the county that should be set aside, but Morris rejected their request.
Morris wrote on Friday that he wanted to be mindful of his court’s jurisdiction, and that he does not want to grant relief based on requests that go beyond the scope of the original lawsuit filed earlier this year.
The judge notes that while it is incredibly likely there are a host of other actions Pendley took that are unlawful and should be struck down, those need to be reviewed in separate lawsuits that conservation groups are welcome to file in the correct jurisdictions.
Morris did make one thing clear: Officials at the BLM should heed the court’s orders.
This comes after Pendley has made a series of public comments that defended his time at the BLM, including statements that he couldn’t be ousted from his leadership role at the bureau because he was never technically named the acting director in the first place and that his role at the agency was lawful.
Morris seemed to respond to these statements by warning that while the department has officially acknowledged the court’s directives, Pendley and others need to be aware that the court has made its judgment on the legality of his tenure.
“Other officials, including Pendley, appear more reticent in their acknowledgment of the effect of the Court’s September Order,” Morris wrote on Friday. “The Court emphasizes again its previous finding: Only the Secretary of the Interior can perform functions or duties of the BLM Director.”
Neither representatives for the conservation groups in the lawsuit nor the BLM immediately responded to requests for comment Friday evening.