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State Restriction on Transferring Federal Lands Ruled Unconstitutional

Monday, November 5, 2018  
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Bulletin 2018/19-31
November 5, 2018

In a judgment issued Thursday, a United States federal court ruled as unconstitutional a 2017 state law that sought to grant the California State Land Commission a right of first refusal on the transfer of federal lands within California. The CLTA had adamantly opposed the measure, SB 50 (Allen), prior to its passage on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and placed undue burdens on title companies and their employees.

Signed into law by Governor Brown in 2017 and established as “a policy of the state to discourage conveyances of federal public lands in California from the federal government”, the controversial measure was the subject of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in April, which sought to void the law on the basis that it ran afoul of the supremacy clause within the U.S. Constitution. The case, United States of America v. State of California, was heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, which after deliberations sided with the United States and declared the law unconstitutional. In an order dated November 1, United States Judge William Shubb granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the United States and denied California’s motion for summary judgment. The Court declared “SB 50 is unconstitutional because it violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.” The Court also enjoined California from enforcing SB 50.

The doctrine of intergovernmental immunity is based on the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution that governs conflicts between state and federal laws. Under the doctrine, a state law is invalid if it discriminates against the Federal Government or those with whom it deals.

Because the Court decided that SB 50 violated the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity it did not reach the question of whether federal law preempts SB 50. However, the Court noted that the argument for preemption seemed compelling given the express language of the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution that reserves for Congress the power to dispose of federal lands, as well as the Act admitting California to the Union. The Act admitting California as a state contains an express condition that the state legislature never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits and pass no law and do not act whereby the title of the United States to, and its right to dispose of, the same shall be impaired or questioned.

As reported by the Reuters news agency, “a spokeswoman for the State Lands Commission declined on Friday to comment on the decision, and said the agency has not decided whether to appeal.”

California Land Title Association


1215 K Street #1816 Sacramento, CA 95814-3905
Email: mail@clta.org  |  Phone: 916-444-2647  |   Fax: 916-444-2851