Federal appeals court allows construction of border barriers over environmental groups’ objections
February 12, 2019
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth ruled Monday that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the legal authority to repair and replace existing fences and walls along the Mexican border in southern California without following certain requirements of federal environmental protection laws.
The appeals court’s ruling upholds a lower district court’s decision in a lawsuit brought by the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a number of environmental activist groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife, who argued that the DHS’s waiver of environmental protection statutes when expediting the construction of the border barriers was illegal.
The court was unmoved by the arguments, finding that the authorizing statute, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, expressly delegates the Secretary of the DHS “the authority to waive all legal requirements” required to enforce the law, including environmental statutes. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing the majority opinion, described the decision to side with the Trump administration as mere common sense. “To suggest that Congress would authorize DHS to build new border barriers but prohibit the maintenance, repair, and replacement of existing ones makes no practical sense” she said in the opinion. Since the DHS is authorized to repair and replace the walls, and the Secretary of the DHS is authorized to waive environmental protection statutes in pursuit of these projects, “the environmental claims are precluded by the Secretary’s waiver” and the district court was correct in its summary judgement in favor of the DHS.
A separate dissent by Circuit Judge Callahan stated that he agreed in the dismissal of the lawsuit, but felt that the appellate court had no jurisdiction and that the Supreme Court is the only body with the authority to hear the appeal.
The decision comes while a similar challenge is pending before a federal court in Washington, DC, for sections of the border in Texas. The US Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal stemming from another environmental challenge to the proposed California border wall.