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Federal Judge Blocks Trump Administration from Enforcing Executive Order on Sanctuary Cities

The order's "facially unconstitutional directives and its coercive effects weigh heavily against leaving it in place."

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Gage Skidmore

Today Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a nationwide preliminary injunction that blocks the Trump administration from enforcing President Donald Trump's executive order denying federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities. "The confusion caused by [the executive order's] facially unconstitutional directives and its coercive effects weigh heavily against leaving it in place," Judge Orrick wrote. "The balance of harms weighs in favor of an injunction."

Today's ruling came in the matter of County of Santa Clara v. Trump and in the related matter of City and County of San Francisco v. Trump, a pair of constitutional challenges filed against the president's executive order. In brief, Santa Clara and San Francisco argue that the Trump administration's threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities violates multiple constitutional provisions, including the separation of powers, the Spending Clause, and the 10th Amendment. They asked for the order to be put on hold while their legal challenges proceed in federal court.

"To succeed in their motions," Judge Orrick wrote today, "the Counties must show that they are likely to face immediate irreparable harm absent an injunction, that they are likely to succeed on the merits, and that the balance of harms and public interest weighs in their favor. The Counties have met this burden." The Trump administration is now blocked from enforcing the executive order anywhere in the country while the constitutional challenges move forward.

The Trump administration may not want to hear it, but sanctuary cities are protected by both the Constitution and by Supreme Court precedent. As Justice Antonin Scalia observed in his 2007 majority opinion in Printz v. United States, "the Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States' officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program." Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), the threat to withhold existing federal funds from a state in order to coerce that state into doing the bidding of the federal government is an unconstitutional act of "economic dragooning." Finally, it should be noted that the federal spending power is located in Article I of the Constitution, among the enumerated powers of Congress; it is not located among the enumerated powers of the president in Article II.

Judge Orrick's opinion in County of Santa Clara v. Trump is available here.