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Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans

Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans
© Courtesy Department of Interior

A new bill from Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterPresident is wild card as shutdown fears grow Repealing the Affordable Care Act: Too big a price to pay for veterans Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure MORE (D-Mont.) and other lawmakers would bar the Trump administration from seeking to overturn the ruling ousting William Perry Pendley from his role as the de facto director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The legislation comes as the Department of the Interior has expressed interest in appealing the decision from U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris that determined Pendley had "served unlawfully ... for 424 days" and tossed major land management plans he oversaw in Montana.

If the ruling stands, it could have major environmental consequences, giving groups a precedent for fighting other plans that open large swaths of public lands to fossil fuel development.

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“William Perry Pendley is not an appropriate choice to lead, work in, or advise any public land management agency due to his record prior to his employment at the Bureau of Land Management, and his continuing work there,” the bill states.

Pendley, a controversial figure due in part to his history of opposing federal ownership of the lands he now manages, served at the department through a series of temporary orders, remaining in the job even after his nomination was withdrawn.

He now serves in a deputy director role, but in recent interviews he has given conflicting responses to the court decision, saying both that he would respect the ruling and that it had "no impact, no impact whatsoever” on his role within the department.

“Montanans have known since day one that William Perry Pendley is nothing more than an unelected Washington bureaucrat who is willing to break the law to sell off our public lands,” Tester said in a statement. 

“Now he’s ignoring a court order and thumbing his nose at the Constitution, so I’m introducing legislation that will put an end to this executive overreach and make sure he can’t continue in his illegal role leading the BLM. Pendley, you aren’t a king — don’t tread on our public lands.” 

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BLM has not had a Senate-approved director for the entirety of the Trump administration.

The legislation would bar the Department of Justice from appealing the case, which was brought by Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D). 

Though an unusual strategy, it has been used in the past. Democrats offered similar legislation earlier this month that would have barred  the Justice Department from seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. Six Republicans, most in vulnerable reelection races, crossed party lines to vote to advance the bill, though it failed to get the 60 votes necessary.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerHillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure MORE (R-Colo.), who supported Democrats’ ACA vote, and Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesRick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE (R-Mont.) have both seen public lands and Pendley in particular surface in their races. 

Tester’s team said it would push to bring the bill to the floor during the lame-duck session after the election.

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Interior said the bill would not withstand legal scrutiny.

“Instead of pushing this patently unconstitutional bill, the Senator’s time would be better spent working with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE on a COVID relief package for the betterment of Montanans and the rest of the country,” the department said in a statement to The Hill. 

Pendley's media interviews following the court decision have confused some.

“If there's something that needs action by the director of the Bureau of Land Management, I won't be doing that. The judge said I can't do that. And so, I won't be doing that,” he told a public radio station earlier this month.

But then he again reiterated, “I have not been ousted. I'm still at my desk,” adding that he had the support of the president and the Interior Department.

Morris’s decision invalidates three land management plans in Montana overseen by Pendley, including one that would open 95 percent of 650,000 acres of BLM land to resource extraction like mining and drilling.

Environmentalists have pledged to pursue similar litigation in other states where Pendley has overseen new land management plans.