Nov. 04–A California law that sought to stop the Trump administration from selling off federal lands in the state to miners, oil drillers and developers is an unconstitutional intrusion on the government’s authority to manage its own property, a judge has ruled.
The legislation, SB50 by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, took effect this year. Environmental groups pressed for it after President Trump’s appointees at the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency signaled plans to open more federal land to private development. The federal government owns 46 million acres of land in California, including Point Reyes National Seashore and Yosemite National Park.
Under SB50, any proposed sale of federal land or mineral rights in California would be referred to the State Lands Commission, which could choose to purchase the land itself, arrange another buyer or approve the sale.
But U.S. District Judge William Shubb of Sacramento said the state cannot interfere with the federal government’s authority over its own lands.
“SB50 unconstitutionally directly regulates the federal government with respect to the federal public lands” managed by its agencies, Shubb said in a ruling late last week that bars the state from enforcing the law. He said it “trespasses on the federal government’s ability to convey land to whomever it wants.”
State lawyers argued that government-owned lands are entitled to greater legal protection than ordinary private property because they have been preserved for the public benefit. But Shubb said the lands’ quality was “linked to their federal status” and could not be used to justify state regulation.
He also noted that the 1850 federal law that established California as a state specified that its lawmakers “shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who sued the state in April, said the ruling was “a firm rejection of California’s assertion that, by legislation, it could dictate how and when the federal government sells federal land.”
The Trump administration has also sued California over its sanctuary laws, which limit local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents. Another federal judge in Sacramento upheld the main provisions of those laws in July but halted enforcement of a law penalizing employers who allow immigration agents into their workplaces.
In another suit, also filed in Sacramento, the Trump administration is challenging California’s net neutrality law, which requires internet carriers to treat all content providers equally. The Federal Communications Commission had enacted a nationwide net neutrality rule during President Barack Obama’s administration, but it was repealed this year by a newly constituted FCC led by a Trump appointee. The state has put its law on hold while a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., considers a lawsuit by California and other states over the FCC’s action.
Garrison Frost, California spokesman for the Audubon Society, which supported SB50, said the law hadn’t been enforced yet, and he was disappointed but not surprised that Shubb had struck it down.
“We’re experiencing some pretty serious threats to public lands and national monuments,” Frost said. “We certainly hope that public lands can be considered sacred and well protected in California.”
There was no immediate comment from the State Lands Commission.
California could challenge the ruling in a federal appeals court.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BobEgelko
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