Amicus brief makes case for Congress’s authority as a steward of our public lands, checks President Trump’s executive overreach in violation of Antiquities Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), along with over 100 of their colleagues in the House and Senate, submitted an amicus brief in support of plaintiffs in five cases before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that challenge the Trump Administration’s decision to significantly diminish the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. In the brief, the lawmakers primarily argue that under the Constitution, no president has the power to shrink or reduce national monuments since that power resides with Congress alone — a case that members of Congress are uniquely positioned to make. In addition to signing the amicus brief, both Senators Murray and Cantwell have previously been vocalopponents of President Trump’s agenda to shrink national monuments and other public lands in Washington state and across the country.
At issue in these cases is whether any president, including President Donald Trump, has the legal authority to reduce or abolish national monuments. According to the plaintiffs, which include Native American Tribes, scientific groups, businesses and conservation organizations, the Trump administration’s actions violate both the Constitution and the Antiquities Act of 1906. If upheld, President Trump’s order would slash more than 2 million acres of protected land — reducing the size of Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to approximately 200,000 acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.9 million acres to approximately 1 million acres — the largest-ever elimination of public land protection in the country’s history. In addition to Senators Murray, Cantwell, and their colleagues, the amicus brief is also supported by a wide coalition of Native American Tribes, environmental groups, conservation organizations, businesses, scientific organizations, and outdoor recreation interests.
The amicus brief makes the following core arguments:
- First, under the Constitution, Congress has absolute control over federal lands. The Constitution grants broad authority to Congress alone over any public lands owned by the federal government. In the Antiquities Act, Congress delegates to the president the limited power to establish national monuments – but not to abolish or diminish existing monuments. The Trump administration’s actions are a clear overreach of the executive branch’s powers that cut against the intent of the law as well as the text of the Constitution.
- Second, interpreting the Antiquities Act to prohibit presidents from reducing the size of national monuments serves the Act’s purpose, which is to safeguard vulnerable national treasures. With the Antiquities Act, Congress gives the president a limited delegation of its power to protect places at risk. Giving presidents a discretionary power to prevent these national treasures from being damaged, without waiting for the passage of legislation, helps ensure that important landmarks and objects will not be destroyed before Congress has an opportunity to act. By contrast, the decision to reduce or eliminate an existing monument does not involve the same urgency, so it was equally sensible for Congress to reserve that power to the slower and more deliberative legislative process. This interpretation is supported by the circumstances that led to the Act’s passage—a concern that newly discovered American archeological sites and artifacts were being looted.
- Third, Congress has not implicitly granted presidents the power to diminish national monuments simply because it did not object to previous reductions to monuments made by presidents in the twentieth century.Congress’s lack of objection in these instances does not mean that it has relinquished its Constitutional duties to the executive branch. The brief makes a clear distinction between where there is legislative granting of authority versus where the court must interpret Constitutional authority. In the Antiquities Act, Congress has spoken precisely to the president’s power regarding national monuments – and limited that power to the designation of new monuments.