Governors across the country will have one eye on a Pennsylvania courthouse Tuesday, where a lawsuit that would prevent the Pentagon from closing Air National Guard facilities gets its first official hearing.
In Philadelphia, attorneys for the state will argue in federal court that the Defense Department has no legal right to shut National Guard sites without the consent of Gov. Ed Rendell. Illinois has also filed suit, and at least four other states are poised to do so as well.
“Federal law is quite clear: Air National Guard units cannot be moved without the express permission of their commander in chief, the governor,” Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, who is weighing whether to sue as well, said in a statement.
Rendell, her counterpart in Harrisburg, has sued the Pentagon, contending that governors must have a say because the Guard is under their control for peacetime domestic purposes such as wildfire fighting, riot control and providing emergency aid in the wake of natural disasters. Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, have joined the lawsuit, which challenges the Pentagon actions on constitutional grounds.
But the Defense Department, backed by an Aug. 11 legal opinion by the Justice Department, argues otherwise.
The Pentagon says it is the federal government that holds paramount sway over the Air Guard, which includes about 106,000 part-time troops who are attached to units at more than 170 Air Force bases, Guard installations and civilian facilities across the country. Air Guard personnel have been mobilized for the war in Iraq, and also play a role in the nation’s homeland security efforts against terrorism.
At issue are at least 30 Air Guard facilities that the Pentagon wants to shut down, shrink or substantially alter. In Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge John Padova has given the case priority and promised to rule before Sept. 8.
That is the deadline for the Base Realignment and Closing Commission to present its decision on the 33 major military bases and hundreds of other facilities on the Pentagon hit list. Commissioners will vote publicly on each Pentagon recommendation in marathon public sessions beginning Wednesday.
In recent hearings, commissioners have expressed concern with the Guard proposals, worrying that the elimination of units in some areas may leave regions of the nation unprepared for quick response to danger, be it caused by terrorists or Mother Nature.
“I think it’s actual fact that our national defense is being hampered, will be impaired by the proposals,” said James Bilbray, a former Nevada congressman and a commission member, at a hearing Saturday.
Along with Pennsylvania, which is fighting to protect the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, which is home to the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, other states up in arms are:
- Illinois, which has filed suit to block the transfer of F-16 fighter jets from the 183rd Fighter Wing of the Springfield Air National Guard unit to a facility in Fort Wayne, Ind.
- Connecticut, which is contemplating suing to save the Air National Guard’s 103rd Fighter Wing at Bradley International Airport. The Air Force wants to move nine of the 17 A-10 warplanes to Barnes Municipal Airport in nearby Massachusetts, and to retire the rest.
- Missouri, which is drawing up a legal case against the transfer of 15 F-15 warplanes from the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Fighter Wing at Lambert Airport in St. Louis to bases in New Jersey and Nevada.
- Delaware, which would be left without any Guard planes, is fighting to save the 166th Airlift Wing, which would lose its fleet of eight C-130 transport planes to neighboring states.
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)