Justice Department Files Lawsuit to Invalidate New California Law Restricting Federal Land Sales
The U.S. Department of Justice today filed a civil action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California against the State of California, Governor of California Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., and the California State Lands Commission, seeking a declaration that California Senate Bill 50 (“SB 50”), enacted in October 2017, is unconstitutional and seeking an injunction against implementation of this state law. This California law purports to give a state agency the power to block the sale, donation or exchange of federal lands by the federal government to any other person or entity. SB 50 also seeks to penalize (up to $5,000) any person who knowingly files real estate records pertaining to a federal land transfer unless the California government certifies that the transfer complies with state law.
“The Constitution empowers the federal government—not state legislatures—to decide when and how federal lands are sold,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land. And yet, once again, the California legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. 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. We are confident that we will prevail in this case—because the facts are on our side.”
“Since the founding of the Republic, it has been fundamental to our constitutional system that a state may not discriminate against the United States or those with whom it deals,” said U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott for the Eastern District of California. “We will vigorously defend this principle.”
Under a range of federal laws, Congress has empowered federal agencies with the responsibility to determine when, to whom, for what purpose, and under what conditions federal interests in property will be conveyed. Federal conveyances serve a broad range of purposes such as supporting national defense, promoting local economic development, furthering land conservation, or otherwise providing important public benefits.
SB 50 interferes with federal land conveyances in the State of California. For example, SB 50 establishes a state policy to discourage transfers of federal lands in California out of federal ownership. It purports to render void federal land conveyances unless the California State Lands Commission is provided with a right of first refusal to the conveyance or the right to arrange for transfer to another entity. In addition, it purports to prohibit recordation of any deed or other conveyance document relating to a federal conveyance, unless the county recorder is presented with a certificate of compliance from the California State Lands Commission.
The United States’ complaint contends that SB 50 violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and is therefore invalid. In the first claim for relief, the complaint alleges that SB 50 violates intergovernmental immunity because it discriminates against the United States and its transaction partners and, in the alternative, because it purports to regulate the United States. In the second claim for relief, the complaint alleges that a range of federal laws preempt SB 50, including because SB 50 stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.
The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution provides: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof . . . , shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby; any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2.
The Property Clause of the Constitution provides that “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2.
On Sept. 9, 1850, Congress enacted “An Act for the Admission of the State of California into the Union,” ch. 50, 9 Stat. 452. Section 3 of the Act provides in relevant part that “the said State of California is admitted into the Union upon the express condition that the people of said State, through their legislature or otherwise, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits, and shall pass no law and do no act whereby the title of the United States to, and right to dispose of, the same shall be impaired or questioned.” 9 Stat. at 452.
The complaint lists examples of conveyances of federal real property purportedly subject to SB 50, including the following:
- The Department of the Army’s planned conveyances to a developer in connection with a multi-phase transaction involving exchanges of about 78 acres of real property owned by the United States in the City of Dublin, Alameda County, for construction of facilities at Camp Parks, an Army military installation.
- The Department of the Navy’s closing on a contract with a developer for the purchase of the Admiral’s Cove property in Alameda, California. The General Services Administration serves as the Navy’s agent in connection with this transaction, providing services under an interagency agreement. This property was formerly used as housing for a military installation at the Naval Air Station Alameda. The Navy and a local redevelopment agency expended substantial resources over a period of many years, including in conducting environmental reviews, before the Navy decided to convey the property.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to revitalize its 388-acre West Los Angeles Campus by leasing real property to other entities for the purpose of providing permanent supportive housing and related services for local veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs also contemplates issuing an easement to the City of Los Angeles in support of the planned Purple Line Metro Project. These actions would help restore the campus to a safe and welcoming community for veterans and help to reduce veteran homelessness in Los Angeles.
The United States is represented in this action by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, with lead counsel Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eric Grant, Justin Heminger, Stacy Stoller and Peter McVeigh, and Civil Chief David Shelledy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.