Judge sides with Pennsylvania on base closings lawsuit

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — In a blow to the Pentagon’s plan to shake up National Guard units, a judge ruled Friday that the Defense Department does not have the authority to dissolve a Pennsylvania Air National Guard division without the governor’s approval.

U.S. District Judge John R. Padova said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should have gotten consent from Gov. Ed Rendell before moving to deactivate the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. The judge said the Pentagon’s recommendation to close the unit is “null and void.”

The ruling came as a base closing commission wrapped up its work in deciding the fate of military bases around the nation. The commission voted Friday to close the Pennsylvania’s Willow Grove station, which is home to the fighter wing and Air Force and Navy reserve units, along with other military units. But the commission did not deactivate the 111th.

It was not immediately clear how the ruling might affect the fate of other guard units targeted by the Pentagon.

Several other states have filed or are considering filing similar lawsuits.

For instance, Illinois sued to block a plan to move an F-16 fighter squadron from the Air National Guard base in Springfield to an airport in Indiana, a move the base-closing commission approved Friday.

In Massachusetts, officials were weighing legal action to prevent the closure of Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. And leaders in Connecticut planned to file a lawsuit Monday to save fighter planes at an Air National Guard base near Hartford that are slated to be retired or moved elsewhere. The commission approved both moves Friday, but recommended keeping the Cape Cod fighter jets in Massachusetts, at another base.

The commission’s plan still has to go to President Bush, who can accept it, reject it or send it back for revisions. Congress also has a chance to veto it.

The Pentagon had recommended that the Pennsylvania guard unit, with more than 1,000 jobs, be deactivated and that its aircraft either be retired or relocated to other Air National Guard bases.

The lawsuit didn’t challenge the Pentagon’s authority to close Willow Grove, only whether the federal government could deactivate the 111th Fighter Wing based there.