The Department of Justice announced that it is filing against the Golden State for what the Trump administration said is an “extreme’’ state law gives California power to veto sales of federal land to private buyers. The 2017 state law gave California officials authority to purchase any federal land in California that the federal government is seeking to sell to private buyers. Currently, approximately 50 percent of California is owned by various government agencies.
The state law is unconstitutional, claims the Department of Justice, under the supremacy clause. The U.S. Constitution holds that federal law is the ultimate authority when there is a conflict between federal law and state law. According to federal law, the federal Bureau of Land Management can select public land for sale if it meets certain criteria.
In a press release on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed California for wasting public resources. In a rare public statement, Sessions was quoted on Monday as saying that California state laws have required the federal lawsuits. Sessions also cited lawsuits that California has filed against the federal government. “We are forced to spend our resources to bring these 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,” Sessions said.
“It is a constitutional issue and a rule of law issue and, more frequently now, a question of how we are allocating our taxpayer dollars — to protecting Americans from violent crime and a raging drug epidemic or defending frivolous lawsuits from partisan actors,” he added.
The federal complaint lists three examples of public lands in California that the federal government wishes to sell that are being blocked by state law. For example, Department of the Army is seeking to sell 78 acres of federal property in Alameda County to a developer to build facilities at Camp Parks, an Army military installation.
California officials argue that they have authority because the state law does not prevent sales of land. They claim that they would prevent private purchasers from recording deeds to the land unless California is afforded the chance to buy the land first. The recording of a deed gives public notice of a purchaser’s right to a parcel of land. Banks will not lend money to buy or develop a property without a recorded deed, while purchasers cannot obtain title insurance. State officials argue that because the land recording system is set up under state law rather than federal law, California thus has the authority to pass laws concerning recorded deeds. Anyone who records a deed in violation of the state law can face fines up to $5,000. However, DOJ official contend that while the federal government could sell land but not record a deed is “a distinction without a difference.”