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Federal court ruling sidelines acting head of Bureau of Land Management

Interior Dept  BLM HQ US Gov Photo 

William Perry Pendley will be sidelined from his role as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management while a court case challenging the legitimacy of his temporary appointment plays out.

A federal district court ruled Sept. 25 that Pendley's appointment as acting director of BLM was unlawful under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA).

"Pendley has served and continues to serve unlawfully as the Acting BLM Director. His ascent to Acting BLM Director did not follow any of the permissible paths set forth by the U.S. Constitution or the FVRA," Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Mont.

The ruling states that only Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has the legal authority to serve as BLM Director, and that he may not further delegate this authority to Pendley or anyone else.

Under the FVRA, official actions taken by individuals found to have been unlawfully appointed are subject to reversal. The case that elicited the ruling was brought by Montana Governor Steve Bullock and involved BLM's rejection of comments from the state on two resource management plans for federally owned wilderness and recreational lands inside its border.

The Interior Department objected to the ruling but it will operate within confines of the injunction as long as it is in effect.

"This is an outrageous decision that is well outside the bounds of the law," the agency said in a statement. "It betrays long-standing practice of the Department going back several administrations. We will be appealing this decision immediately."

Pendley's tenure at the top of BLM has been marked by controversy. A former conservative activist who advocated for the government to divest itself of massive land holdings in the western U.S., Pendley has been serving as the top official at BLM since July 2019. He was nominated by President Donald Trump to take the job on Senate-confirmed basis, but that nomination was withdrawn.

The ruling took aim at the practice, increasingly common in the Trump administration, of establishing grants of authority and orders of succession in an effort to evade the letter of the FVRA.

"Federal Defendants’ argument attempting to distinguish an 'Acting Director' from an 'official performing the Director's duties under the Secretary's delegation" represents a distinction without a difference," Morris wrote.

The Interior Department has less than two weeks to file a brief explaining what actions of Pendley's should be preserved or set aside.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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