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A Judge Rules That Trump Can Keep Secret His Reasons for Shrinking Our National Monuments

A judge says the administration doesn't have to turn over legal documents for which an environmental law firm had sued.
Sandstone formations on the western edge of the Bears Ears National Monument outside Blanding, Utah.

Sandstone formations on the western edge of the Bears Ears National Monument outside Blanding, Utah.

In the latest development in the efforts by environmental advocates, tribes, and outdoor retailers to challenge President Donald Trump's shrinking of two Utah monuments, a district judge on Monday ruled that the Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn't have to turn over legal documents regarding the president's decision, the Associated Press reports.

Last December, Trump stood before a packed crowd at the Utah State Capitol and proclaimed, "I've come to Utah to take a very historic action to reverse federal overreach and restore the rights of this land to your citizens." He went on to sign two executive orders, reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by almost 50 percent and Bears Ears National Monument by roughly 85 percent.

The "federal overreach" Trump referenced has to do with his administration's interpretation of the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to create national monuments, provided that they're limited to the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected." The act says nothing about the authority to shrink or abolish monuments.

If you're wondering what kind of behind-the-scenes discussions went on at the White House when the administration was deliberating about its choice to pare down the Utah monuments—and its legal ability to do so—you're not alone: Boise-based environmental law firm Advocates for the West filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for the release of 12 documents prepared by the DOJ's legal counsel while the decision was being made, and then sued when the documents were withheld.

In his ruling that the DOJ doesn't have to turn those documents over, District Judge David Nye wrote that the documents contain legal advice that "should remain protected."

"This decision shows how difficult it is to force sunlight on a government that flourishes in secrecy," Todd Tucci, a senior attorney for Advocates for the West, told the AP.

The administration is still facing lawsuits challenging the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.