Supreme Court

Jeff Sessions' Case Against California's Sanctuary Cities Is a Constitutional Loser

The Constitution prevents the feds from commandeering state and local officials.


Gage Skidmore /

"Lawless open borders radicals" in California, Attorney General Jeff Sessions complained last week, have "enacted a number of laws designed to intentionally obstruct the work of our sworn immigration enforcement officers." To counteract this alleged lawlessness, Sessions announced that the Justice Department was filing suit in federal court against California, seeking the judicial invalidation of three state laws that support so-called sanctuary city policies.

The most significant of those three laws is a statute known as the California Values Act of 2017. It prohibits state and local police from providing various assistance to federal immigration officials, such as "providing information regarding a [detained] person's release date or responding to requests for notification by providing release dates or other information unless that information is available to the public, or is in response to a notification request from immigration authorities in accordance with" California law. According to Attorney General Sessions, the California Values Act should be struck down because it obstructs the work of federal agents and violates the supremacy of federal law.

But there's a big problem with Sessions' argument. As South Texas College of Law Houston professor Josh Blackman and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Ilya Shapiro point out in today's Wall Street Journal, Sessions' case against the California Values Act fails to pass constitutional muster:

The California Values Act…doesn't interfere with federal law, because, as the Court recognized in Printz v. U.S. (1997), Congress can't "commandeer" state officials. It is not a proper exercise of federal power to dictate how state law-enforcement agencies manage their resources and prioritize their missions. California's policy of noncooperation no doubt makes enforcement more difficult, but it doesn't constitute obstruction or interference.

That's exactly right. As I explained in a column last week, Sessions is effectively trying to force local police into administering federal law, which is precisely what Justice Antonin Scalia described as an unconstitutional "federal commandeering of state governments" in his majority opinion in Printz. That ruling overturned certain provisions of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. As I concluded, "just as the feds may not dragoon local police into administering federal gun control laws, the feds may not dragoon local police into administering federal immigration laws."

Jeff Sessions' case against the California Values Act is a constitutional loser.