A federal judge in San Francisco ruled that President Donald Trump's executive order threatening to pull funding from so-called sanctuary cities is likely unconstitutional, delivering a fresh legal blow to the administration's immigration crackdown.
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Under the nationwide preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge William Orrick, the administration cannot deny federal grants to jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration, as it has threatened. The ruling is a win for the two northern California jurisdictions that filed the suit, San Francisco and Santa Clara county, but more broadly for local officials who are battling the administration over its stepped up efforts to deport more people living in the U.S. illegally.
In his order, Judge Orrick said the plaintiffs successfully proved they are likely to face immediate, irreparable harm absent court action. He said the executive order threatens to "deprive the counties of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants that support core services" and creates budget uncertainty.
There is no definition of a sanctuary city, and local policies vary, but they all limit in some way cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
The Trump administration has said that for purposes of federal grant eligibility, it was defining the term narrowly, but the court cited statements by administration officials in concluding that a broad crackdown on uncooperative local communities was at issue.
As such, Judge Orrick said the executive order likely violates the constitutional separation of powers, as well as the Fifth Amendment right to due process and 10th Amendment prohibition on commandeering local jurisdictions to carry out federal law.
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"The Constitution vests the spending powers in Congress, not the president, so the order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds," the judge wrote.
That said, he acknowledged that granting the preliminary injunction doesn't block the Trump administration from enforcing existing conditions of federal grants, or developing regulations around or defining what makes a sanctuary jurisdiction.
The Trump administration didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The president's January executive order requires U.S. officials to ensure that sanctuary cities "are not eligible to receive federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes." The order doesn't specify what types of federal funds might be withheld.
Lawyers defending the order recently said in court that it only applies to a limited number of grants offered through the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, and that most of San Francisco and Santa Clara County's federal funding wouldn't be affected. Rather than focus on constitutional arguments, the Justice Department asserted that neither San Francisco nor Santa Clara had legal standing to bring the case.
The two jurisdictions argued that the Trump administration has put forth conflicting rhetoric on which funds are at risk under the Trump policy.
Judge Orrick agreed, saying the language of the order attempts to reach all grants, not just the limited number mentioned by Justice Department lawyers in court.
Public comments from the Trump administration have also confused the issue, Judge Orrick said. "The president has called it 'a weapon' to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration enforcement," he wrote.
Judge Orrick questioned whether the order is "merely a rhetorical device" or a weapon, concluding that "The result of this schizophrenic approach to the Order is that the Counties' worst fears are not allayed and the Counties reasonably fear enforcement under the Order."
This is the second Trump immigration initiative in which judges have used the president's own words in striking down his policies. In the case of a controversial ban on travel to the U.S. by people from several nations, administration lawyers had argued it was narrowly crafted, but a federal judge cited Mr. Trump's earlier, sweeping call for a ban on Muslims entering the country.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said Tuesday, "This is why we have courts -- to halt the overreach of a president and an attorney general who either don't understand the Constitution or chose to ignore it." San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee called the ruling a relief, as the city is in the middle of its budget planning, and the ruling provided clarity.
James Williams, the county counsel for Santa Clara, said the court's decision is "an affirmation of the basic principles of federalism and the separation of powers that our founders put in place, and it makes absolutely clear that the president cannot use Congress's spending power to threaten and coerce states and local government to adapt his agenda."
The Trump administration has taken the position that its crackdown on sanctuary cities has been limited and narrow. The only action taken so far directed at these cities and counties is to require that they affirm they are complying with a law requiring that they let local officials communicate with federal authorities about immigration matters.
Compliance with that law is already a condition of certain grants, and the judge acknowledged that granting the preliminary injunction doesn't block the administration from enforcing existing conditions of federal grants.
A Justice Department spokesman reiterated Tuesday that "it will follow the law with respect to regulation of sanctuary jurisdictions" and continue to enforce existing policies. The spokesman also said the order doesn't purport to hinder the agency's ability to "enforce the requirements of federal law applicable to communities that violate federal immigration law or federal grant conditions."
Tuesday's ruling suggests that any effort by the administration to tie other grant funding to immigration cooperation could be problematic.
Separately, a delegation of mayors met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington on Tuesday in an effort to get a clearer definition of what a sanctuary city is. Afterward, mayors said Mr. Sessions defined it narrowly -- just as the government did in court -- as a jurisdiction that violates a section of law known as 1373, which seeks to assure that local officials aren't barred from communicating with federal immigration authorities.
"They said, we believe a sanctuary city is a city that willfully violates 1373," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said after the meeting. Cities say they are in compliance with this statute, so there is no reason to think that their funding would be cut if that is the definition the administration plans to use in defining sanctuaries.
But Mr. Landrieu said the attorney general didn't rule out the possibility that his agency would try to tie grant funding to a requirement that cities honor "detainers," which means holding in jail people who federal authorities want to process for possible deportation.
Many jurisdictions won't honor these detainers, citing court rulings that have found doing so violates the suspect's constitutional rights.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 25, 2017 20:14 ET (00:14 GMT)