SACRAMENTO — The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday sued California over a law that aims to give the state power to override the sale of federal lands, the latest battle between President Donald Trump and the nation’s most populous state.
California vowed to fight for the state’s first right to purchase federal lands or to arrange for a specific buyer — part of an aggressive effort in the heavily Democratic state to thwart the president’s agenda in his first year. Lawmakers who passed the law last year cited concerns that the Trump administration would allow more logging, oil drilling or development on some of the 46 million acres owned by the federal government in California.
The Justice Department lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sacramento, argues that the state has no power to interfere with federal land sales, citing the Constitution and the 1850 act of Congress that admitted California to the union.
“Once again, the California Legislature has enacted an extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
The federal lawsuit comes less than a month after Sessions visited Sacramento to announce he was suing California over laws that restrict cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The state has sparred with the federal government in and out of court over a wide range of immigration and environmental policies, most recently over vehicle emissions standards and offshore drilling.
Sessions decried the mounting litigation between the Justice Department, California and other states asking judges to invalidate pieces of the Trump agenda. In a lengthy statement Monday, he blasted “ideological judging” and “limitless injunctions” that he says allow just one judge to tie up the administration’s policies.
“Government-by-litigation isn’t what the American people voted for and attempting to thwart an administration’s elected agenda through endless, meritless lawsuits is a dangerous precedent,” Sessions said.
At the request of attorneys general in mostly Democratic states, judges have temporarily blocked Trump’s decision to end a program protecting some immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation, withhold law enforcement grants from so-called sanctuary cities and ban transgender troops from the military.
Republican states effectively used the courts to thwart some of former President Barack Obama’s immigration and environmental priorities, though they failed to invalidate his signature health care law.
In the latest lawsuit, the U.S. government says California’s law, which took effect Jan. 1, is delaying land sales — even for projects that have been in the works for years — and is depressing their value. The auction of 1.7 acres owned by the U.S. Postal Service was suspended when nobody bid, and a developer looking to purchase property at the now-closed Naval Air Station Alameda has requested a delay, the lawsuit contends.
It also cites the sale of Army property east of San Francisco, which the state declined to purchase. The State Lands Commission has requested information about a planned property sale in Santa Barbara County to decide whether to buy first, according to the lawsuit.
“Yet again, Donald Trump and his administration are attacking our state and our very way of life,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a member of the State Lands Commission and a Democrat running for governor, said in a statement.
California Democrats welcomed the latest fight and vowed to defend the law.
“Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources and our values.”