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The Justice Department is Suing California — Again

This is the second time in a month that the Justice Department has taken California to court, accusing the state of interfering with the federal government's activities.

Last updated on April 2, 2018, at 5:37 p.m. ET

Posted on April 2, 2018, at 4:16 p.m. ET

California Gov. Jerry Brown
Stephen Lam / Getty Images

California Gov. Jerry Brown

The Justice Department is suing California for the second time in a month, once again accusing the state of unconstitutionally passing laws that interfere with the federal government's activities.

This time, the lawsuit is about the state's ability to block the transfer of federal property into private hands. California last year passed a law that gives the state the "right of first refusal” for a particular sale or exchange of federal lands. The Justice Department is arguing the state is violating the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which broadly says that when there’s a conflict between federal and state law, federal law prevails.

It’s the same argument the Justice Department made last month when it sued California over the state’s so-called sanctuary laws, which the DOJ contends interfere with federal immigration enforcement. Asked on Monday if the Justice Department was focusing at a high level on taking California to court — the state's Democratic attorney general has routinely sued the Trump administration over the past year, and has traded barbs with Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a senior DOJ official told reporters that California was attracting the feds' attention because of its "extreme" laws.

“To the extent it looks like we’re focusing on California, that is really a product of the extreme nature of the laws California has been passing in recent days," the official said. "They are passing laws that no other state is passing or has thought to pass, and that’s because the laws are unconstitutional.”

The California law, SB 50, was passed in October and took effect at the start of the year. The law would make it unlawful to try to record a deed for transferred federal property unless the State Lands Commission certified that it was first given the right to block the deal, or alternatively the opportunity to transfer the land to another party.

Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio said in a statement that although states have the right to pass laws that promote their own policy goals, "they do not have the right to actively obstruct federal policy, interfere with federal actions, or discriminate against the United States."

"Whether California legislators or the governor like it or not, they must comply with the terms of their admission to the union and their oaths of office to uphold the US Constitution," Panuccio said.

Sessions issued a statement saying the Justice Department was "forced" to spend resources on lawsuits "against states like California that believe they are above the law and are passing facially unconstitutional laws specifically intended to interfere with the federal government’s ability to carry out its legitimate law enforcement duties."

"I regret the need to file yet another lawsuit against the state of California today," Sessions said.

In response to the lawsuit, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement, "Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder. We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources, and our values."

A spokesperson for Brown said in a statement that, "While the Administration is evaluating the lawsuit and considering next steps, the Administration’s commitment to protecting access to public lands for the use and enjoyment by all Californians is unchanged and unwavering."

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of California in Sacramento, lists examples of proposed or finalized deals that the Justice Department says are already being delayed or frustrated by SB 50, including the auction of a US Postal Service property, a $38 million development deal for a former military installation, and the transfer of federal lands in exchange for the construction at an Army installation.

There are more than 45 million acres of federal lands in California, representing about 45% of all land in the state, according to documents prepared by various committees in the California legislature about the bill. The stated goal of SB 50 was to discourage the transfer of federal lands to private parties. The legislative history shows that lawmakers were concerned about the Trump administration's decision to review the status of national monuments, as well as about the general preservation of federal land for the public's benefit.

The legislative history also shows that lawmakers were aware the bill could face a constitutional challenge. One analysis prepared for the state Senate Judiciary Committee stated, "the question is close enough that the constitutionality of SB 50 might well be challenged in court."

UPDATE

Updated with comment from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a spokesperson for Gov. Jerry Brown.

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