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Federal Court Rules Against Trump Administration on Most Issues in California "Sanctuary State" Case

The ruling is just the start of what may be a prolonged legal battle over immigration and federalism.



Flag of California.


In a decision issued earlier today, Federal District Judge John Mendez ruled against the Trump administration on most, but not all, of the issues at stake in the federal government's high-profile lawsuit against California's "sanctuary state" laws. The administration is challenging three new California laws: Senate Bill 54, which restricts state and local officials from sharing information about immigrants within the state, with federal agencies; Assembly Bill 103, which requires the state attorney general to inspect any facility in the state where immigrants are detained by federal agents while awaiting immigration court dates or deportation; and Assembly Bill 450, which forbids private employers from cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and audits unless such cooperation is mandated by a court order or a specific federal law. The federal government claimed that all three bills conflict with federal law and are therefore "preempted." As Judge Mendez—a George W. Bush appointee—recognized, the case "presents unique and novel constitutional issues" involving federalism and immigration law. The federal government has stronger claims here than in its efforts to cut federal grants to sanctuary cities by imposing conditions never authorized by Congress, on which the administration has suffered a long series of well-earned defeats in various federal courts.

Today's decision rejects the federal government's request for an injunction blocking enforcement of SB 54 and AB 103. But Judge Mendez did issue an injunction against the main provision of AB 450. Like other sanctuary cases currently in the federal courts, United States v. California raises major constitutional federalism issues that have implications going far beyond immigration issues. If the federal government prevails in these cases, it would have greatly increased leverage to coerce state and local governments.

The Trump administration claims that SB 54 violates federal law because it conflicts with 8 U.S.C. Section 1373, a controversial federal law mandating that "a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual." But Judge Mendez concludes that "the constitutionality of Section 1373 [is] highly suspect" after the Supreme Court's recent decision in Murphy v. NCAA, which struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law barring states that previously prohibited sports gambling from passing laws "authorizing" it. Murphy struck down PASPA because it "unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do," thereby violating the Tenth Amendment, which the Supreme Court has long interpreted to forbid federal "commandeering" of state governments in order to enforce federal law. As Mendez explains, "Section 1373 does just what Murphy proscribes: it tells States they may not prohibit (i.e., through legislation) the sharing of information regarding immigration status with the INS or other government entities." A recent federal court ruling in a sanctuary city case involving the City of Philadelphia struck down Section 1373 under Murphy. Judge Mendez does not go quite that far, but instead interprets Section 1373 narrowly, so that it does not conflict with SB 54. He rules that Section 1373 does not require disclosure of information about immigrants addresses, release dates, and other matters, but only focuses on "immigration status," narrowly construed. SB 54, Judge Mendez concludes, does not cover the latter type of information.

Mendez also rejected the federal government's claims that SB 54 is preempted by federal laws facilitating the deportation of undocumented immigrants. As he explains, any such preemption would be unconstitutional, because the federal government cannot force states to assist in federal law enforcement efforts: "a Congressional mandate prohibiting states from restricting their law enforcement agencies' involvement in immigration enforcement activities—apart from, perhaps, a narrowly drawn information sharing provision—would likely violate the Tenth Amendment." I think Judge Mendez could have gone further than this, and ruled that there is no information-sharing exception to the anti-commandeering rule, not even a "narrowly drawn" one. But the conclusion he does reach is enough to deal with the claim against SB 54.

Judge Mendez also rejects the federal government's case against AB 103, the detention facility inspection rule. He notes that the inspections required under the bill are similar to those that apply to other law enforcement detention facilities in California, and that they impose little in the way of new burdens on the federal government. They therefore don't conflict with federal law, and do not qualify as unconstitutional discrimination against federal facilities: "[T]he review appears no more burdensome than reviews required under California Penal Code §§ 6030, 6031.1. Thus, even if AB 103 treats federal contractors differently than the State treats other detention facilities, Plaintiff has not shown the State treats other facilities better than those contractors."

The federal government did, however, prevail on one important issue: Judge Mendez granted the request to issue an injunction against AB 450. He did not issue any ruling on the issue of whether AB 450 is preempted by federal immigration law, though he strongly suggests it may not be because, "[I]n preemption analysis, the [Supreme] Court presumes 'the historic police powers of the States' are not superseded 'unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.'….. [and] Laws governing labor relations and the workplace generally fall within the States' police powers. Congress has not expressly authorized immigration officers to enter places of labor upon employer consent."

Nonetheless, Mendez ruled against California on AB 450 because he concluded it violates the doctrine of "intergovernmental immunity," which bars state laws that "regulate the United States directly or discriminate against the Federal Government or those with whom it deals." AB 450 runs afoul of this because it targets employers who assist the federal government in immigration enforcement.

In my view, Judge Mendez got this part of the decision wrong. As he notes, his ruling expands the definition of "dealing" from entities that have economic or contractual relationships with the federal government, to those that merely provide voluntary assistance. In addition, AB 450 does not "discriminate" against people who "deal" with the federal government because there is no meaningful private-sector analogue to federal immigration enforcement raids. The concept of discrimination implies treating similarly situated entities differently. For example, a state government discriminates against entities that deal with the federal government if it imposes special restrictions on firms that rent cars to federal agencies that don't apply to those that rent the same kinds of vehicles to private parties. But there is no true private counterpart to people who assist federal immigration raids, because no private entity has the legal right to deport people, forcibly separate families, and confine people in cages. These are the kinds of things that occur when federal officials apprehend suspected undocumented immigrants after raids. Nonetheless, I recognize that this part of the case—like others—presents some difficult issues.

The impact of Mendez's ruling against the main part of AB 450 is partly mitigated by his refusal to block implementation of a provision of the same law that requires employers to give employees warning of any planned federal inspection of their immigration records (which may include at least some on-site raids). Judge Mendez argues that the notice requirement is different from the anti-raid policy because "Unlike the prohibitions on consent [to raids], violations of this provision do not turn on the employer's choice to 'deal with' (i.e., consent to) federal law enforcement. An employer is not punished for its choice to work with the Federal Government, but for its failure to communicate with its employees."

Although this decision only addresses the federal government's motion for a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the California laws, it nonetheless prefigures the court's likely final decision on the merits. One of the criteria for securing a preliminary injunction is "likelihood of success on the merits," and Judge Mendez explicitly ruled that the federal government was unlikely to succeed in its claims against SB 54 and AB 103, but was likely to prevail on AB 450.

Today's ruling is just the beginning of what may well be a prolonged legal battle, one that could potentially end up in the Supreme Court. But it it is not a good sign for the administration that a Republican-appointed judge ruled against it on most of the issues at stake. Trump's losing streak in sanctuary jurisdiction cases could well continue.