California reached a milestone Friday in its long-standing feud with President Trump when Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra announced he has filed his 100th lawsuit against the administration, this time challenging changes in environmental rules.
Becerra said the lawsuit filed Friday, like the 99 others, challenges the president's authority to change federal policies in ways that harm California and its residents.
The attorney general, who was first appointed to the post in 2017 and was elected in 2018, said he did not expect to have to file so many lawsuits.
"I am surprised that any president in any administration would at least 100 times be caught red-handed violating the law," Becerra said in an interview with The Times. "I am not surprised we have had to sue, because we have to protect our people, our resources and our values, and we use the rule of law to do that."
The barrage of lawsuits since 2017 has included challenges to Trump administration policies on immigration, healthcare, education, gun control, consumer protection, the census, the U.S. Postal Service and civil rights issues.
More than half of them, including Friday's lawsuit, claim that the Trump administration has undermined or failed to comply with federal environmental rules.
The latest legal challenge alleges that the administration is improperly weakening a requirement that federal agencies review and assess the effects of their actions on the environment. The rule change announced July 15 would limit review of environmental justice and climate change impacts, Becerra said.
The lawsuit, which was jointly filed with Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson, also alleges that the rule change involving the National Environmental Policy Act will limit public participation in the review process, including input from communities of color.
The review process has allowed state agencies to have input into federal proposals including the project to raise the level of the Shasta Lake reservoir.
"This rule would short-circuit the process for review," Becerra said. "It would let developers and development projects go through a shortcut that deprives communities that live in these areas the right to provide their input."
The new federal lawsuit follows a flurry of others filed in the last month that challenged Trump administration policies on the census, high-interest loans and predatory lenders, and the United States Postal Service.
Capitol observers say Becerra's record has helped establish him as a chief litigator against the Republican president, which could benefit him politically in heavily Democratic California.
GOP strategist Mike Madrid said he is surprised only that Becerra has not filed more than 100 lawsuits.
"Establishing yourself as the most anti-Trump politician in California certainly has its benefits in the state, and he's best positioned to be that person, with the arguable exception of the governor," Madrid said. "It's like the Trump administration is giving the attorney general an in-kind contribution to his next campaign."
Though Newsom has to be careful about upsetting a president who controls how much money the state gets in disaster aid, Becerra faces no such constraints, said Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney.
"There is very little downside to fighting Trump in a state where he got only 32% of the vote," Pitney said. "Becerra's causes, especially environmental protection, are popular with Californians."
California has taken the Trump administration to court far more than Republicans did in Texas during the Obama years, when nearly 60 lawsuits were filed, garnering national attention.
Republican leaders in California have accused Becerra of spending too much time in court suing the president.
Becerra has not given enough attention to solving problems in California, including rising property crimes, while "promiscuously and reflexively filing these scattershot lawsuits," said Harmeet K. Dhillon, Republican National Committee member for California and co-chair of the Republican National Lawyers Assn.
"The attorney general's job is to make Californians' lives better, not pick quixotic battles with a faraway leader whose political agenda and power affect only a sliver of California's issues," Dhillon said.
In addition, some liberal activists have said the attorney general has not done enough to address problems of excessive force by the police in California.
Becerra has won 59 of the cases filed against the administration so far, a representative said. Last year, the attorney general's office spent $16 million on federal matters, or 1.47% of its total budget. Becerra said the victories have had a positive effect on the lives of Californians.
"Can you imagine how bad things would be with the census, as bad as they are, if it also included a question on citizenship?" Becerra asked. "Can you imagine where we would be if we had close to 200,000 'Dreamers' in California being told that they would be deported?"
In September 2017, Becerra sued to challenge the repeal of an Obama-era order that protected immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and grew up without legal status, known as Dreamers, from deportation. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration's plan to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The attorney general also won a court decision that blocked U.S. Department of Justice conditions that could have reduced funding to local law enforcement agencies in California that adopted so-called sanctuary city laws limiting cooperation with immigration agents.
Not all of the wins have been in the courtroom. After California and other states sued to challenge a policy limiting travel to the U.S. from countries with large Muslim populations, the Trump administration changed the policy.
The administration also dropped plans to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census after California and other states sued to challenge the proposal.
There have also been losses. A judge denied the state's motion to block construction of a border wall in San Diego and Imperial counties, although that decision is on appeal.
Becerra has not been shy about capitalizing politically on the flood of litigation. His campaign often sends fundraising appeals to supporters that tout his lawsuits, most recently when he announced plans to sue over threatened cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service.
"The postal service is critical. Our right to vote, your paycheck, your prescription medicines — you can't get more serious than that," said a July 30 email from the Becerra for Attorney General 2022 campaign committee. "If you're with us in the fight to stop Trump, team, can you make a contribution today?"
The attorney general said his political activities are separate from his actions in the courtroom.
"A lot of folks are interested in what's going on," he said of the emails. "I appreciate that some of the folks that are out there wish to be supportive of me, but those are obviously two different things — the work we do officially and the work we do unofficially."
Becerra's name is among those raised in political circles as a possible appointment to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Gavin Newsom should Sen. Kamala Harris be elected vice president in November and vacate the seat.
Becerra declined to say whether he is interested in the post.
"I am thrilled to see Kamala Harris have a chance to become the next vice president," the attorney general said. "And I'm going to be cheering Gavin Newsom as he gets to make some of those tough calls. He has got to make a lot of tough calls. We will see where all that goes."
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