In a 17-page lawsuit filed Monday in Sacramento federal court, the U.S. Department of Justice claims California’s law has already caused buyers to back out of negotiated property deals in the Golden State. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says the recently enacted legislation, Senate Bill 50, was passed by state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to “frustrate federal policy.”
“The Constitution empowers the federal government – not state legislatures – to decide when and how federal lands are sold,” Sessions said in a statement.
The complaint lists six planned sales of federal land to private buyers that federal officials claim have been nixed or delayed by SB 50 since it went into effect Jan. 1. Deals that have been put on hold include a $38 million sale of Navy property in Alameda, California and a 5-acre parcel of public land in Santa Barbara County.
Sessions says California’s law clouds and obstructs federal land conveyances and is scaring away private buyers. He says the law, known as the Public Lands Protection Act, is unconstitutional and pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“As a result of uncertainty created by the enactment of SB 50, federal agencies have been, and will continue to be, unable to finalize conveyances that would have been finalized but for the enactment of SB 50,” the complaint states.
California’s Democratic lawmakers passed the bill in 2017 as a means of preventing the Trump administration from selling public land to oil and mining companies. The legislation gives the state Lands Commission right of refusal on transfers of public land to third-party buyers.
The federal government controls 45 million acres in California, more than 45 percent of the state’s total acreage.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says he’s prepared to protect federal public lands in California.
“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,” Becerra said in a statement.
The Democratic measure passed both statehouses on a mostly party-line vote and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017. A host of environmental groups supported the measure including the Sierra Club, California Coastkeeper Alliance and Restore the Delta.
Monday’s lawsuit comes with the Trump administration engaged in separate challenge to California’s sanctuary laws. Sessions sued California on March 6 in Sacramento, claiming three new state immigration laws are a threat to public safety and federal immigration officers.
The latest lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge William Shubb, a George H.W. Bush appointee. It names the state, Gov. Brown and the Lands Commission as defendants.
Sessions said he is confident the federal government will prevail in the latest lawsuit against the Golden State.
“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,” Sessions added.