Judge removes Trump public lands boss for serving unlawfully

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks to members of the business community in Billings, Mont., on July 24, 2020. The Democratic governor is asking a federal judge to oust the Trump administration official responsible for overseeing more than quarter-billion acres of public lands. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

BILLINGS, Mont. – 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.

The agency will abide by the judge's order while the appeal is pending, officials said. It will also have to confront questions over the legitimacy of all decisions Pendley had made, including his approval of land use plans in Montana that Morris said Pendley was not authorized to make.

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.