On Friday, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled that acting Bureau of Land Management chief William Perry Pendley had been serving unlawfully in his position and ordered his removal from the position. Pendley’s role is one of a slew across the Trump administration that have been filled in an “acting” capacity while major policy deliberations have unfolded. These set-ups mean that the officials in the positions have taken on the duties without actually going before the Senate for confirmation hearings as required by law. “Acting” officials are normally in top jobs on a temporary basis, but they’ve served for lengthy periods in the Trump administration, which has allowed Trump allies to lead government policy without that extra level of Senate scrutiny.
In Pendley’s case, Morris ruled that the “Acting” set-up allowing him to serve without Senate confirmation hearings is illegal. Pendley’s position can have major ramifications for environmental policy in the United States. The Bureau of Land Management, which is a part of the Interior Department, is responsible for the oversight of federally owned public lands across the country, which includes around one out of every ten acres, which totals almost a quarter-billion acres of land.
According to the legal team for Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who sued in an effort to secure Pendley’s removal and has now proven temporarily successful, the apparently illegally serving public lands chief approved plans that would open a staggering 95 percent of federal land in Montana to oil and gas development. This expansion of oil and gas development could have serious environmental impacts for generations to come, and it was getting approved by an official who wasn’t even legally serving in his position.
At one point, Pendley was nominated to serve as public lands chief in a more “permanent” capacity, but the White House withdrew that nomination earlier this month. However, he stayed on in the role after having himself issued an order back in May that made his original job of deputy director into the top position at the agency in the absence of a director.
The Trump administration has tried to argue that Pendley isn’t even the actual “acting” director — he’s just fulfilling directorial duties, they say — but the attempted distinction boils down to arbitrary semantics. The fact of the matter is that he has been serving as — under any reasonable characterization — the acting director, and he’s been doing so illegally.
Judge Morris concluded, referring to the Trump administration’s argument on behalf of Pendley:
‘Under the federal defendant’s theory, a president could ignore their constitutional appointment responsibility indefinitely and instead delegate authority directly or through cabinet secretaries to unconfirmed appointed officials. Such an arrangement could last for an entire presidential administration. In fact, the case before the Court presents that scenario
The administration plans to appeal the court ruling removing Pendley from the post, but they’re abiding by it for now.