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Trump Administration Sues California over New State Law Related to the Sale of Federal Lands

The Trump Administration has filed suit against the State of California over a land use bill that gives the state a right of first refusal on sales of federal land. The challenged bill is California Senate Bill 50 (SB 50) and was authored by State Senator Benjamin Allen. The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, also names Governor Jerry Brown and the California State Lands Commission as defendants. The Justice Department’s lawsuit seeks a declaration that SB 50 is unconstitutional and an injunction against the law’s implementation. [U.S. v. State of California, et al., Case No. 2:18-at-00406, filed Apr. 2, 2018 (E.D. Cal.)]



The bill at issue was signed into law on October 6 2017, and went into effect on January 1, 2018. SB 50 applies to certain federal land conveyances and gives the State the right to purchase such federal land before it is sold off by the U.S. government. The right of first refusal does not apply to conveyances involving a habitat conservation plan, lands conveyed into or out of trust for a federally recognized Native American Tribe, lease renewals, and certain other land exchanges. SB 50 also requires the State Lands Commission, Wildlife Conservation Board, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to enter into a memorandum of understanding establishing a state policy that they will undertake all feasible efforts to protect against future unauthorized conveyances of federal public lands or any change in federal public land designation.

The Trump Administration has taken the position that the law improperly gives the State of California the power to block the sale of federal land to private parties. California officials, on the other hand, argue that the State would not be permitted to interfere with the actual sale of federal lands, but rather, would prevent the transfer deeds from getting recorded. In other words, a conveyance may not be recorded by any California county recorder’s office unless a certificate of compliance has been issued by the State Lands Commission. Any person who knowingly records a federal land transfer without certification is subject to a $5,000 fine.


The Claim

According to the complaint, SB 50 is invalid because it violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The complaint also lists several examples of the State’s purported interference with recent conveyances of federal real property. One such example is the Department of the Army’s planned conveyance to a developer involving 78 acres of real property owned by the United States in Alameda County. The Department of the Navy also closed on a contract with a developer for the purchase of property in Alameda County, but that transaction is also subject to SB 50. Finally, the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to lease a 388-acre property to entities that will provide permanent supportive housing and related services for local veterans.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized the state for passing SB 50, saying:


  • We are forced to spend our resources to bring these lawsuits against states like California that believe they are above the law. . .California has, once again, passed an extreme statute found in no other state to obstruct the federal government, this time by interfering with the conveyance of federal lands. . .California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land. . .

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra defended the law by saying that:


  • 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.


Conclusion and Implications

This lawsuit is the latest in rising tensions between the Trump Administration and California officials—this time over a right of first refusal for federal land within California’s borders. Other legal battles between the federal government and the State of California concern immigration policies and environmental regulations. These lawsuits can only be expected to continue so long as the policy differences of the Trump Administration and state officials exist.

(Nedda Mahrou)