Judge rules sanctuary cities order violates Constitution — and uses quotes from Trump, Spicer to prove it
Protesters hold up signs outside a courthouse where a federal judge will hear arguments in the first lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with immigration authorities Friday, April 14, 2017, in San Francisco.
When a long list of comments from President Donald Trump, his surrogates and his spokespersons shows up in a federal court ruling, it’s fair to say it can only mean one thing: a constitutionally questionable executive order is about to get a judicial smackdown.
That was true in March, when federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland suspended Trump’s travel ban, saying the administration had showed a clear animus toward Muslims, despite government lawyers’ claims to the contrary.
And it was true on Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick of California temporarily froze Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities, ruling that it likely violated the Constitution.
In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Snap-On Tools in Kenosha, Wis.
Trump’s order, signed Jan. 25, threatens to cut off funding from local governments that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. Santa Clara County and the city of San Francisco challenged the order arguing, among other things, that the president doesn’t have the power to withhold federal money. Orrick found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on all their claims, as The Washington Post reported.
The 49-page ruling focused largely on an all-to-familiar theme for the young administration: bragging and bluster by Trump and top administration officials.
Just like the judges who ruled on Trump’s travel ban, Orrick homed in on the vast discrepancies between what government lawyers defending the sanctuary cities order argued in court and what administration officials said about it in public.
The government tried to make the case that the order doesn’t actually do anything, at least not at the moment, because the administration has yet to define what exactly a sanctuary city is. It was their way of convincing the judge to toss out the lawsuit on the grounds that no city or county has yet suffered any harm.
In this Jan. 25, 2017 file photo, Moina Shaiq holds a sign at a rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco. On Tuesday, April 25, 2017, a federal judge blocked a Trump administration order to withhold funding from communities that limit cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities, saying the president has no authority to attach new conditions to federal spending.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File
But in public, administration officials boasted about how the order would force sanctuary cities to their knees. The order described in court as essentially an empty shell was portrayed in news conferences and television interviews as a powerful tool to protect the public from dangerous undocumented immigrants being shielded by wayward cities and counties.
In his ruling, the judge pointed to a February interview between Trump and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, in which Trump called the order “a weapon” to use against cities that tried to defy his immigration policies.
“I don’t want to defund anybody. I want to give them the money they need to properly operate as a city or a state,” Trump said in the interview. “If they’re going to have sanctuary cities, we may have to do that. Certainly that would be a weapon.”
The judge also cited news conferences in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to “claw back any funds” awarded to a city that violated the order.
AG Jeff Sessions: Sanctuary Cities Must End 2:12
And the judge brought up remarks by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who said in no uncertain terms that “counties and other institutions that remain sanctuary cities don’t get federal government funding.”
On top of that, the judge said, Trump and Sessions had repeatedly held up San Francisco as an example of the supposed dangers sanctuary cities pose to ordinary, law-abiding citizens.
It was more than enough to show the intent of Trump’s order, Orrick wrote.
According to Orrick, the government contended that the order was merely an example of Trump using the “bully pulpit” to “highlight a changed approach to immigration enforcement” – in essence, something much more benign than what Trump and company had described.
The argument was lost on the judge, who ridiculed the government’s position as “schizophrenic.”
“If there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments,” Orrick wrote.
“Is the Order merely a rhetorical device,” he added, “or a ‘weapon’ to defund the Counties and those who have implemented a different law enforcement strategy than the Government currently believes is desirable?”
In this Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017 file photo, Lordes Reboyoso, right, yells at a rally outside of City Hall in San Francisco.
The ruling continued: “The statements of the President, his press secretary and the Attorney General belie the Government’s argument in the briefing that the Order does not change the law. They have repeatedly indicated an intent to defund sanctuary jurisdictions in compliance with the Executive Order.”
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because other federal judges reached similar conclusions about the administration’s credibility in lawsuits challenging Trump’s travel ban.
In March, judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued rulings that temporarily halted the executive order, which seeks to bar new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries. In both cases, judges found that what government lawyers said in court didn’t line up with remarks from Trump and some of his closest advisers, who had previously called for a “Muslim ban.” The administration’s intent was obvious, the judges said.
“Plainly-worded” statements by Trump and his surrogates “betrayed the Executive Order’s stated secular purpose,” one judge wrote, using language strikingly similar to Orrick’s.
The Trump administration has vowed to fight rulings in the travel ban and sanctuary cities cases all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
In a statement Tuesday, it called Orrick’s decision “one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.” The ruling puts the order on hold while the judge weighs the full evidence in the case.
As long as the administration continues to issue broad executive orders, it should expect to have statements by its top officials to come up in court, said Jayashri Srikantiah, an immigration law professor at Stanford.
“It’s hard to imagine not seeing more of these kinds of legal challenges,” she said. “The president is the president and the attorney general is the attorney general, and we have to take seriously what they say about an executive order with such sweeping implications.”