Supreme Court won’t hear challenges to president’s power to create national monuments

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The Supreme Court declined to take up two lawsuits challenging the ability of the U.S. president to declare federal lands to be national monuments.

The nation’s highest court denied the petitions for certiorari, or review, on March 25, in the cases of Murphy Company v. Biden and American Forest Resource Council v. United States, in an unsigned order. The court did not explain the decisions.

Conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the denial of certiorari but did not explain why. At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for it to advance to the oral argument stage.

Back in 2000, President Bill Clinton designated 52,000 acres straddling the Oregon-California border, dubbing it the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in hopes of preserving its supposed biodiversity.

About 17 years later, President Barack Obama expanded the boundary on the Oregon side of the monument by 48,000 acres. At the same time, he blocked logging in the new section of the monument, part of which is governed by a federal statute.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president the authority “in [his] discretion” to declare that “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” located on federal land are “national monuments” and to “reserve parcels of land as a part of the national monuments” so long as those parcels are “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” according to the Murphy Company’s petition (pdf).

Decades later, the Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands Act (O and C Act) of 1937 was enacted. In it, Congress designated federal land in Oregon for “permanent forest production,” mandating that “the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the princip[le] of sustained yield” timber production.

In 2017, President Obama issued Proclamation 9564 to use the Antiquities Act to add O and C Act timberlands to an existing national monument in Oregon that was created to protect biological diversity, even though lands included in the monument may not be used in “provision of a sustained yield of timber,” according to President Clinton’s Proclamation 7318, dated June 2000.

The issue in the case was whether the Antiquities Act authorizes the president “to declare federal lands part of a national monument where a separate federal statute reserves those specific federal lands for a specific purpose that is incompatible with national monument status.”

Murphy Company and Murphy Timber Investments, two Oregon-based timber companies, argued that President Obama lacked the authority to issue a proclamation that added around 48,000 acres in southwestern Oregon to an existing national monument created to safeguard biological diversity.

They argued that the Obama proclamation was unlawful because some of the affected land was previously designated as timberland under the O and C Act. It was their position that the statute reserved timber production permanently.

The companies argued that the Antiquities Act did not grant the president authority to suspend another act of Congress. “The proclamation represents a particularly expansive and troubling exercise of the amorphous presidential discretion granted by the Antiquities Act, one that tramples the commands of a separate and directly applicable statute in a manner that threatens the separation of powers.”

A federal district court in Oregon dismissed the lawsuit brought by Murphy Company. Around the same time, a federal district court in the nation’s capital sided with the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), finding the president was not allowed to use the Antiquities Act to designate lands that were already reserved for development under the O and C Act.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued separate rulings in favor of the government. Both courts concluded that the Antiquities Act and the O and C Act could be read “in harmony,” according to a SCOTUSblog summary.

“On the one hand, the 1937 law merely requires the Interior Department to reserve some of the covered area as timberlands, the D.C. Circuit explained. On the other hand, the Antiquities Act gives the president, who appoints the secretary of the interior, discretion to protect smaller parcels of land from development, the 9th Circuit reasoned. Accordingly, both courts of appeals held that the two laws work in tandem, even if in tension, to guide the executive branch’s authority over the Oregon forest,” the summary stated.

The Epoch Times reached out for comment to attorneys for the litigants in both cases, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents President Joe Biden and the U.S. government. As of publication time, only AFRC had responded.

“We’re disappointed the Supreme Court did not take this historic opportunity to provide balance to growing Executive overreach on federal lands through the Antiquities Act, and legal clarity for our forests, communities, and the people who steward them,” AFRC’s president Travis Joseph told The Epoch Times.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the petitions came after the AFRC asked the congressional delegation for the Pacific Northwest to take action to help the region’s beleaguered forest and wood products sector.

“The status quo in Western Oregon is unacceptable and unsustainable for our forests and communities,” Mr. Joseph said.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared March 26, 2024, in The Epoch Times.