BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that President Donald Trump's leading steward of public lands has been serving unlawfully, blocking him from continuing in the position in the latest pushback against the administration's practice of filling key positions without U.S. Senate approval.
U.S. Interior Department Bureau of Land Management acting director William Perry Pendley served unlawfully for 424 days without being confirmed to the post by the Senate as required under the Constitution, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris determined.
The ruling came after Montana’s Democratic governor in July sued to remove Pendley, saying the former oil industry attorney was illegally overseeing an agency that manages almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in the U.S. West.
“Today’s ruling is a win for the Constitution, the rule of law, and our public lands,” Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday. Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers from Western states also cheered the judge's move after urging for months that Pendley be removed.
The ruling will be immediately appealed, according to Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson. He called it “an outrageous decision that is well outside the bounds of the law," and he said the Obama administration had similarly filled key posts at the agency with temporary authorizations.
It was not immediately clear if the administration will try to keep Pendley atop the bureau pending the appeal.
The land bureau regulates activities ranging from mining and oil extraction to livestock grazing and recreation. Under Trump, it has been at the forefront in the administration's drive to loosen environmental restrictions for oil and gas drilling and other development on public lands.
Pendley has been one of several senior officials in the Trump administration running federal agencies and departments despite not having gone before the Senate for the confirmation hearings that are required for top posts.
Last month, the Government Accountability Office, a bipartisan congressional watchdog, said acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and his acting deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, were improperly serving and ineligible to run the agency under the Vacancy Reform Act. The two have been at the forefront of administration initiatives on immigration and law enforcement.
Trump agencies have defended the skipped deadlines for Senate hearings for administration nominees, saying that the senior officials involved were carrying out the duties of their acting position but were not actually filling that position, and thus did not require a hearing and votes before the Senate.