District court upholds Clinton national monuments

Published February 1, 2002

A federal district court on November 15 upheld former President Bill Clinton’s designation of six national monuments on federal lands in four Western states. Clinton’s action was deemed permissible under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 federal statute that allows Presidents to act without congressional approval in protecting objects of historic and scientific interest from human development.

The lands in question are the Cascades-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, the Hanford Reach in Washington, the Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, and the Great Canyon-Parashant, Ironwood Forest, and Sonoran Desert national monuments in Arizona.

Westerners objected the designations were unnecessary, improperly formulated, and enacted without consultation with local citizens.

According to the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), which challenged the designations in court, the Constitution vests Congress with exclusive authority over federal lands. In designating national monuments without the cooperation of Congress, MSLF asserted, Clinton exceeded his constitutional authority.

Moreover, argued MSLF, Clinton improperly designated lands that were not of historic or scientific interest, nor did he confine his designations to “the smallest area,” as required by the Antiquities Act.

The district court, however, ruled Clinton acted properly because he used the “magic words” associated with the Antiquities Act. By explicitly stating the lands designated for national monument status were “of scientific interest,” “historic,” and limited to “the smallest area,” Clinton ensured his judgment was beyond judicial scrutiny.

“It is not the court’s role to plumb the record to see that there is substantial evidence” in support of the proclamation, or “to hold a trial to determine what facts or factors” went into the decision “beyond what is in the proclamation,” stated the court.

“The courts have always upheld the Antiquities Act and will continue to do so in the future,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell.

MSLF President William Perry Pendley, however, contended the district court gave too much credit to the former President’s judgment. Perry expressed confidence his group would prevail on appeal.

“We’re talking about millions of acres of land that, with a stroke of a pen, the President set aside,” said Pendley. “We believe the court needs to go further and say, ‘Wait a second. Are these areas truly scientific? Are they historic? Is this the smallest area necessary to protect the resource?'”

“We are pleased that the district court issued an expeditious ruling in this case to permit this vitally important constitutional case to be on its way to eventual resolution in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Pendley added.

“Because the Antiquities Act has not been reviewed by the Supreme Court for a quarter of a century and has not been subjected to an in-depth review for over 80 years, today’s ruling was key to ensuring our ability to seek Supreme Court review sooner rather than later.”