Federal Appeals Court Blocks Trump Effort to Withhold Federal Funds From Sanctuary Cities

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 03, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Trump administration is not a fan of sanctuary cities and states. One of the new president's first executive orders called for the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security to "ensure that jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (sanctuary jurisdictions) are not eligible to receive Federal grants."

And those sanctuary jurisdictions were not fans of that executive order. Four California cities, along with the state and the city of Chicago, have filed lawsuits against President Trump and Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, calling such bans on federal funding unconstitutional. So far, the majority of judges have ruled in favor of the sanctuary cities, and the Ninth Circuit joined that list, deciding this week that Congress alone controls spending under the Constitution, and presidents do not have the power to unilaterally withhold funding as a means to pursue their own policy goals.

The Bark

"By its plain terms, the Executive Order directs the agencies of the Executive Branch to withhold funds appropriated by Congress in order to further the Administration's policy objective of punishing cities and counties that adopt so-called 'sanctuary' policies," the Ninth Circuit ruled, adding, "there is no reasonable argument that the President has not exceeded his authority."

In the suit, San Francisco and Santa Clara challenged the Executive Order, claiming their sanctuary policies -- barring city and county law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration law enforcement efforts -- could mean losing billions of dollars in federal funds. United States District Judge William H. Orrick issued an injunction barring the Trump administration from enforcing the executive order nationwide in April 2017, finding, "Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves."

All Bluster and No Bite

While the Ninth Circuit upheld Judge Orrick's injunction as it related to the two California cities, "given the absence of specific findings underlying the nationwide application of the injunction," it declined to uphold a nationwide ban on the executive order.

Trump's attorneys had tried to argue that it was too early to litigate the executive order, since it had yet to be enforced, and, anyway, it was mostly just a threat to sanctuary jurisdictions. "On the merits, the administration argues that the executive order is all bluster and no bite, representing a perfectly legitimate use of the presidential 'bully pulpit,' without any real meaning," Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. "The Administration quickly and repeatedly announced that the Executive Order would eradicate sanctuary policies by authorizing the wholesale defunding of cities that do not assist the Administration in enforcing its hardline immigration policy," Thomas concluded, however.

That policy, at least as it pertains to withholding federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions, will remain on hold for the time being.

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