by Tim Pearce
A district court spiked an environmental lawsuit Monday seeking to force the Trump administration to turn over documents related to cutting back national monuments.
U.S. District Judge David Nye told the environmental group Advocates for the West (AW) that a dozen documents the organization argued should be made public are protected as presidential communications, The Associated Press reported.
The documents “contain legal advice to the president and his advisers and should remain protected,” Bye wrote, according to the AP. “While public disclosure is an important and necessary part of any free society, so too is candor and privacy when those at the highest levels of government strive to determine the best course of action.”
The documents reveal past administrations’ reasons for establishing and expanding national monuments under the Antiquities Act between 2006 and 2016, according to AW.
“This decision shows how difficult it is to force sunlight on a government that flourishes in secrecy,” AW attorney Todd Tucci told the AP. “President [Donald] Trump’s abrupt change in interpretation of the Antiquities Act should be subject to the light of day.”
Trump signed executive orders on Dec. 4 rolling back the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. Environmentalists roundly criticized the action and filed lawsuits against the administration attempting to block the orders.
Presidents have cut national monuments before, however, Trump’s act was the first to be challenged in court. The crux of the legal case lies in whether the 1906 Antiquities Act implies that the executive branch has the power to cut down national monument designations without explicitly saying so.
AW is seeking the documents denied by Nye because the papers may contain justifications for the national monuments that undercut the Trump administration’s reasons for rolling the designations back. The documents may not affect the legality of Trump’s executive orders, though.
“It is critical to distinguish between whether altering monument borders and status is wise policy versus whether the President has legal authority to do so,” Federalist Society environmental expert and Chapman University law professor Donald Kochan told The Daily Caller News Foundation in December. “Nothing in the poorly drafted and extremely deferential text of the Antiquities Act overcomes the presumption that the power to act includes the power to reverse course, even of a prior president.”
AW is considering appealing the case to the 9th Circuit.
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Tim Pearce is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow Tim Pearce on Twitter.