BOISE • The attorney general’s office has issued a scathing review of a legal theory behind a challenge to federal land ownership being discussed in Utah.
The office was asked to review a bill by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, which starts by laying out a belief that federal ownership of so much of Idaho’s land is unconstitutional and that a transfer of lands to the state would “fulfill the promise made in the U.S. Constitution, the Idaho Constitution, the Idaho Admissions Act and congressional acts under the equal footing doctrine.”
This philosophy mirrors the legal theory of lawyer George Wentz, who is leading a planned legal challenge in Utah and who came to the Idaho Statehouse earlier this session. Federal ownership of so much Western land, Wentz says, is against the equal-footing doctrine that all states need to be treated equally.
Judging by an opinion on Boyle’s bill requested by Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office doesn’t agree.
“This premise has no support in law,” Deputy Attorney Steven Strack wrote of the equal-footing theory. He went on to cite a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that explicitly rejected the idea that federal lands are held in trust for the state, and other rulings, including a federal circuit court ruling from Washington state in 1997 that said federal ownership of so much of that state did not violate the equal-footing doctrine. Strack wrote that Congress has the power to dispose of federal lands as it chooses.
This isn’t the first time Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office has taken such a stance on public lands issues. The office has previously opined that Idaho would lose if it tried to sue the federal government for control of public lands on similar grounds.
Rubel used Strack’s opinion to rip into Wentz’s theory Tuesday during the hearing on Boyle’s bill in the House Resources and Conservation Committee.
“Having listened to the attorney from Utah, I truly believe he is selling snake oil,” she said. “I do not believe there is a court in this nation that would buy the equal-footing doctrine as he puts it out there.”
“There are a lot of people that have different opinions than our attorney general,” Boyle said. “There are a lot of lawyers out there.”
The bill cleared committee on a party-line vote and now goes to the full House.