Supreme Court allows Trump to override environmental laws to build border wall

While President Trump’s power to spend money on his border wall remains uncertain, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to the administration’s power to override environmental laws when building 145 miles of barriers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Environmental and wildlife groups have argued that Congress violated constitutional norms with laws from 1996 that allowed the government to waive other federal, state and local laws in order to install physical barriers and roads near U.S. borders “to deter illegal crossing into areas of high illegal entry.”

The laws have been rarely used for 20 years, but the Trump administration has repeatedly invoked them to pave the way for the president’s flagship project, a wall along 450 miles of the US-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security cited the 1996 law and its successors for waiving environmental reviews, building on land inhabited by protected species, using paths through private farmland and uprooting rare saguaro cactus plants in the Organ Pipe National Cactus Monument in Arizona.

Environmental advocates argued that the federal waiver law unconstitutionally ceded legislative powers to the executive branch. But a federal judge in Washington, D.C., upheld the law last September, saying Congress determined in 1996 that the need to discourage illegal entry into the United States trumped laws governing land use. . The 1996 law also cut off normal avenues of appeal and forced opponents to take their case directly to the Supreme Court, which denied review on Monday.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court does not consider the flagrant abuse of the law by the Trump administration to expedite the construction of the border wall,” said Jean Su, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, lead plaintiff in the case. . “This administration has flouted the Constitution to build an extremely destructive wall. We will continue to fight against these illegal waivers and do all we can to prevent further damage to the beautiful border regions.

Environmental groups and a number of states, including California, are also fighting Trump’s orders to redirect billions of dollars in military funds for building walls after Congress refused to appropriate the money.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last Friday that Trump lacked the authority to embezzle $2.5 billion in military funds to build 130 miles of walls and barriers in California. , Arizona and New Mexico. The 2-1 ruling said Congress, which has constitutional authority over federal spending, had appropriated the funds for military pay, weapons, and other Department of Defense purposes, and had never allowed Trump to spend them on building walls.

The Supreme Court, however, allowed construction to continue pending the funding dispute, which is set to return to the High Court following the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

In Monday’s case, environmental and wildlife advocates said the Department of Homeland Security used the 1996 law, signed by President Bill Clinton, and follow-on laws to overturn more than 40 laws environmental and land regulations for 145 miles in all four states.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has “swept away a wide range of public and private freedoms protected by federal, state, local and tribal laws in the name of building a border wall – all without an iota of congressional guidance,” the defenders said in their Supreme Court filing.

Among other things, they said, Wolf’s department ignored the impact on “endangered species such as the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf, Sonoran pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, whose survival depends on the freedom of cross-border migration”. And they said the same law could potentially be used to waive an array of legal protections, including minimum wages and prohibitions on racial discrimination, anywhere within 100 miles of a land or sea border, including San Francisco.

In response, the Trump administration said the court allowed Congress to delegate powers to the executive as long as that delegation included standards, such as the need to prevent illegal immigration.

“It was Congress, not the executive branch, that made the political judgment in (this law) that the need for rapid construction of barriers and roads in areas of high illegal entry near the border of the United States trumps political interests advanced by other laws,” Justice Department attorneys told the court.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity vs. Wolf, 19-975.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @BobEgelko