Confirmation of Secretary Haaland’s new FWS Director May Violate the Law

Confirmation of Secretary Haaland’s new FWS Director May Violate the Law

  • February 18, 2022
Lack of statutorily required credentials could threaten agency actions

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust commented on last night’s voice vote by the U.S. Senate to confirm Martha Williams as the new Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The vote comes despite a lack of academic credentials long-deemed a legal pre-requisite for confirmation to the post. The official placement of Williams in the post has the potential to imperil any future decisions she may take in her official capacity.

During the Nixon Administration, Congress imposed statutory eligibility requirements on the Director of FWS (as well as the Director of the Bureau of Land Management at the Department of the Interior). The requirements are two-fold: a subjective assessment of experience in the principles of fisheries and wildlife management and a “scientific education” in a relevant field, most commonly biology. While Williams has experience as the former Director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, her only postsecondary degrees are a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Juris Doctor. As a long-standing career official recently noted in a December blog post on the issue, “every confirmed Director has had biological scientific credentials; many had M.S. degrees, and one had a PhD.”

The decision to place Ms. Williams in the role in spite of an apparent lack of required qualifications creates a risk that her appointment is contrary to law. Such a risk not only adds an element of legal vulnerability to her future decisions but also appears to bolster public perceptions that the Administration is breaking precedent and holding double standards when it seems to advance their policy agenda. For instance, last week the Department of Energy raised some eyebrows when it expressly acknowledged it is prioritizing policy over senior leaders’ ethical obligations. Now, at the Department of the Interior there appears to be another instance of a policy agenda taking precedence over well-established legal obligations.

“While the confirmation of Martha Williams was bipartisan, it was nevertheless precedent-breaking and could create legal issues for the Department’s major priorities that might not have been fully considered,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “From the environmental analysis of Alaska energy projects to revised Endangered Species Act regulations, Ms. Williams’ lack of statutory qualification presents a serious issue for the Department. Just as importantly, it comes at a time when other agencies seem to be pursuing a similar ‘policy over ethics/legal obligations’ approach. It’s quite concerning to think about the other ways this novel de-prioritization of ethics and legal obligations may be playing out.”