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

The ruling, written by a Republican-appointed judge, is an important victory for federalism.


Flag of California. (California)

Earlier today, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the Trump Administration on nearly all the disputed issues in the California "sanctuary state" case. The ruling is an important victory for federalism in the ongoing legal struggle between Trump and various "blue" sanctuary jurisdictions. This case is the latest in a long line of Trump administration defeats in sanctuary cases that have helped make constitutional federalism great again. The implications go well beyond the specific context of immigration.

Like the earlier trial court ruling in the same case, the Ninth Circuit decision emphasizes the important constitutional principle that the federal government cannot compel states to help it enforce federal law. It also adopts an appropriately narrow view of the doctrine that forbids state policies "discriminating" against the federal government and those who deal with it.

The administration filed a lawsuit challenging three recent 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, and requires employers to give notice to employees of any federal immigration-related inspections of employment records.

The federal government claimed that all three bills conflict with federal law and are therefore "preempted," and that many parts of them also violate the doctrine of "intergovernmental immunity," which bars states from "discriminating" against the federal government or "those with whom it deals." In July 2018, a federal district judge ruled in favor of California on two of the three laws in question.

Today's ruling largely follows the reasoning of the district court decision. It too upholds Senate Bill 54 because it does not actually conflict with any federal law. 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." The Ninth Circuit, like the district court, concludes that SB 54 does not violate Section 1373. Thus, it does not reach the question of whether Section 1373 is unconstitutional because it violates Supreme Court precedent ruling that the Tenth Amendment bans federal "commandeering" of state governments to help enforce federal law. Numerous other recent court decisions have concluded that Section 1373 is unconstitutional on that basis, particularly since the Supreme Court's May 2018 ruling in Murphy v. NCAA strengthened the case against Section 1373.

The Ninth Circuit ruling does emphasize that the anti-commandeering rule is an important factor in its relatively narrow interpretation of federal immigration law, so as to uphold SB 54:

The United States' primary argument against SB 54 is that it forces federal authorities to expend greater resources to enforce immigration laws, but that would be the case regardless of SB 54, since California would still retain the ability to "decline to administer the federal program." New York [v. United States], 505 U.S. at 177. As the Supreme Court recently rearticulated in Murphy, under the anticommandeering rule, "Congress cannot issue direct orders to state legislatures…"

SB 54 may well frustrate the federal government's immigration enforcement efforts. However, whatever the wisdom of the underlying policy adopted by California, that frustration is permissible, because California has the right, pursuant to the anticommandeering rule, to refrain from assisting with federal efforts. The United States stresses that… Congress expected cooperation between states and federal immigration authorities…. But when questions of federalism are involved, we must distinguish between expectations and requirements. In this context, the federal government was free to expect as much as it wanted, but it could not require California's cooperation without running afoul of the Tenth Amendment.

This reasoning has obvious implications for other situations where states might wish to refuse to help the federal government enforce federal law.

The Ninth Circuit also upholds AB 103 state inspections of federal immigration detention facilities on much the same basis as the district court: the inspections do not "discriminate" against the federal government because they are much the same as those that California requires for other prisons within the state.

On SB 450, the Court of Appeals did not consider the one issue where the district court ruled in favor of the federal government: instituting an injunction against the part of the law that bars employers from voluntarily consenting to ICE raids. The case before the Ninth Circuit was an appeal by the United States against those parts of the district court ruling that went against it, so it does not raise the one issue on which the federal government won in the trial court.

The Ninth Circuit did reaffirm the district court's ruling that SB 450's worker notification requirement is constitutional. It emphasized that the requirement does not "discriminate" against the federal government because it does not treat its agents less favorably than similarly situated private parties:

The Supreme Court has clarified that a state "does not discriminate against the Federal Government and those with whom it deals unless it treats someone else better than it treats them." Washington, 460 U.S. at 544–45. AB 450 does not treat the federal government worse than anyone else; indeed, it does not regulate federal operations at all. Accordingly, the district court correctly concluded that AB 450's employee-notice provisions do not violate the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.

I would add that the same reasoning should eventually lead the Ninth Circuit to overrule the District Court on the issue of SB 450's bar on voluntary employer cooperation with ICE raids. There is no discrimination here because there is no private-sector analogue to ICE that California treats better.

The Ninth Circuit did rule against California on one small issue where the trial court went the other way. It struck down a provision of AB 103 that required inspections of the circumstances of the detainees apprehension and transfer to the facility in question. Unlike the rest of AB 103, "[t]his is a novel requirement, apparently distinct from any other inspection requirements imposed by California law," and therefore qualifies as discrimination against the federal government, violating the doctrine of "intergovernmental immunity."

I think this part of the Ninth Circuit's ruling is wrong because ICE apprehension and detention of immigrants is not truly analogous to the detention of other kinds of prisoners, including those arrested by state law enforcement. The criticism I made against the district court's ruling on AB 450 applies here too. There is no meaningful state (or private) analogue to federal-government detention of suspected illegal immigrants for deportation, because no private or state agency has the power to deport people with only minimal due process, often so little that the government routinely detains and deports large numbers of people who are actually US citizens.

Like the district court decision this case largely upholds, the Ninth Circuit ruling only addresses the federal government's motion for a preliminary injunction against the three state laws. But, in both cases, the court's ruling prefigures the likely outcome of a final judgment on the merits.

The Ninth Circuit sanctuary state ruling is the latest in a long line of federal court decisions ruling against the Trump administration's efforts to force sanctuary jurisdictions to cooperate with federal enforcement priorities. I review those cases and their significance in my forthcoming Texas Law Review article on Trump-era sanctuary state litigation, and its broader significance.

Some experts, myself included, initially believed that the sanctuary state case presented the most difficult issues of all the Trump-era sanctuary cases, and could well wind up in the Supreme Court. I still think it is the closest of the lot, but I think it is less likely to get taken up by the Supreme Court than before. The fact that an ideologically disparate group of judges have all ruled against the administration on most of the issues in the case suggests that there may be less disagreement on these issues in the judiciary than I expected.

It is significant that Trump's repeated defeats in sanctuary cases have come at the hands of both Republican and Democratic federal judges. Today's ruling is no exception. Judge Milan Smith, Jr. author of the Ninth Circuit opinion, is a Republican George W. Bush appointee. The district court judge who ruled  against the administration on most issues in this case is also a GOP appointee. The other two judges on the Ninth Circuit panel are Democratic Obama appointees. When it comes to sanctuary cities, if not some other issues, Chief Justice John Roberts was right to say  "[w]e do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges."