Law & the Courts

A Ruling about Nothing

U.S. President Donald Trump (Reuters: Yuri Gripas)
A federal judge suspends Trump’s unenforced ban on funding for sanctuary cities.

A showboating federal judge in San Francisco has issued an injunction against President Trump’s executive order cutting off federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities. The ruling distorts the E.O. beyond recognition, accusing the president of usurping legislative authority despite the order’s express adherence to “existing law.” Moreover, undeterred by the inconvenience that the order has not been enforced, the activist court — better to say, the fantasist court — dreams up harms that might befall San Francisco and Santa Clara, the sanctuary jurisdictions behind the suit, if it were enforced. The court thus flouts the standing doctrine, which limits judicial authority to actual controversies involving concrete, non-speculative harms.

Although he vents for 49 pages, Judge William H. Orrick III gives away the game early, on page 4. There, the Obama appointee explains that his ruling is about . . . nothing.

That is, Orrick acknowledges that he is adopting the construction of the E.O. urged by the Trump Justice Department, which maintains that the order does nothing more than call for the enforcement of already existing law. Although that construction is completely consistent with the E.O. as written, Judge Orrick implausibly describes it as “implausible.”

Since Orrick ultimately agrees with the Trump Justice Department, and since no enforcement action has been taken based on the E.O., why not just dismiss the case? Why the judicial theatrics?

There appear to be two reasons.

The first is Orrick’s patent desire to embarrass the White House, which rolled out the E.O. with great fanfare. The court wants it understood that Trump is a pretender: For all the hullaballoo, the E.O. effectively did nothing. Indeed, Orrick rationalizes his repeated misreadings of what the order actually says by feigning disbelief that what it says could possibly be what it means. Were that the case, he suggests, there would have been no reason to issue the order in the first place.

Thus, taking a page from the activist left-wing judges who invalidated Trump’s “travel ban” orders, Orrick harps on stump speeches by Trump and other administration officials. One wonders how well Barack “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” Obama would have fared under the judiciary’s new Trump Doctrine: The extravagant political rhetoric by which the incumbent president customarily sells his policies relieves a court of the obligation to grapple with the inevitably more modest legal text of the directives that follow.

Of course, the peer branches of government are supposed to presume each other’s good faith in the absence of a patent violation of the law. But let’s put aside the unseemliness of Orrick’s barely concealed contempt for a moment, because he is also wrong. The proper purpose of an executive order is to direct the operations of the executive branch within the proper bounds of the law. There is, therefore, nothing untoward about an E.O. that directs the president’s subordinates to take enforcement action within the confines of congressional statutes. In fact, it is welcome.

It is the president’s burden to set federal law-enforcement priorities. After years of Obama’s lax enforcement of immigration law and apathy regarding sanctuary jurisdictions, an E.O. openly manifesting an intent to execute the laws vigorously can have a salutary effect. And indeed, indications are that the cumulative effect of Trump’s more zealous approach to enforcement, of which the sanctuary-city E.O. is just one component, has been a significant reduction in the number of aliens seeking to enter the U.S. illegally.

In any event, eight years of Obama’s phone and pen have made it easy to forget that the president is not supposed to make law, and thus that we should celebrate, not condemn, an E.O. that does not break new legal ground. Orrick, by contrast, proceeds from the flawed premise that if a president is issuing an E.O., it simply must be his purpose to usurp congressional authority. Then he censures Trump for a purported usurpation that is nothing more than a figment of his own very active imagination.

Orrick’s second reason for issuing his Ruling About Nothing is to rationalize what is essentially an advisory opinion. It holds — I know you’ll be shocked to hear this — that if Trump ever did try to cut off funds from sanctuary cities, it would be an epic violation of the Constitution. Given that courts are supposed to refrain from issuing advisory opinions, the Constitution is actually more aggrieved by Orrick than by Trump.

* * *

In a nutshell, the court claims that the E.O. is presidential legislation, an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers. Orrick insists that the E.O. directs the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security to cut off any federal funds that would otherwise go to states and municipalities if they “willfully refuse to comply” with a federal law (Section 1373 of Title 8) that calls for state and local cooperation in enforcing immigration law.

According to Judge Orrick, Trump’s E.O. is heedless of whether Congress has approved any terminations of state funding from federal programs it has enacted. In one of the opinion’s most disingenuous passages, Orrick asserts that the E.O. “directs the Attorney General and the [Homeland Security] Secretary to ensure that ‘sanctuary jurisdictions’ are ‘not eligible to receive’ federal grants.” (Emphasis in original.)

But this is just not true; Orrick has omitted key context from the relevant passage, which actually states that “the Attorney General and the Secretary, in their discretion and to the extent consistent with law, shall ensure that jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373 (sanctuary jurisdictions) are not eligible to receive Federal grants.” (Emphasis added.)

In plain English, the president has expressly restricted his subordinates to the limits that Congress has enacted. Under Trump’s order, there can be no suspension or denial of funding from a federal program unless congressional statutes authorize it. The president is not engaged in an Obama-esque rewrite of federal law; he explicitly ordered his subordinates to follow federal law.

It is not enough to say Orrick mulishly ignores the clear text of the executive order. Again and again, Justice Department lawyers emphasized to the court that Trump’s order explicitly reaffirmed existing law. Orrick refused to listen because, well, what fun would that be? If the president is simply directing that the law be followed, there is no basis for a progressive judge to accuse him of violating the law. Were he to concede that, how would Orrick then win this month’s Social Justice Warrior in a Robe Award for Telling Donald Trump What For?

Orrick can’t confine himself to merely inventing a violation, either, because there is no basis for a lawsuit unless a violation results in real damages. So, the judge also has to fabricate some harm. This takes some doing since, in addition to merely directing that the law be enforced, the Trump administration has not actually taken any action against any sanctuary jurisdiction to this point.

No problem: Orrick theorizes that because San Francisco and Santa Clara receive lots of government funding, Trump’s order afflicts them with “pre-enforcement” anxiety. They quake in fear that their safety-net and services budgets will be slashed.

Sanctuary cities? Maybe we should call them snowflake cities.

As noted above, there is a transparent agenda behind Orrick’s sleight of hand. The judge is keen to warn the president that, if ever his administration were to deny funds to sanctuary cities, it would violate the Constitution. It is in connection with this advisory opinion that the judge makes the only point worthy of consideration — albeit not in the case before him.

Here, it is useful to recall the Supreme Court’s first Obamacare ruling. While conservatives inveighed against Chief Justice Roberts’s upholding of the individual mandate, the decision had a silver lining: The majority invalidated Obamacare’s Medicaid mandate, which required the states, as a condition of qualifying for federal Medicaid funding, to enforce the federal government’s generous new Medicaid qualifications.

In our system, the states are sovereign — the federal government may not dictate to them in areas of traditional state regulation, nor may it conscript them to enforce federal law. The Supremes therefore explained that state agreements to accept federal funding in return for adopting federal standards (e.g., to accept highway funding in exchange for adopting the federally prescribed 55-mph speed limit) are like contracts. The state must agree to the federal government’s terms. Once such an agreement is reached, the feds may not unilaterally make material changes in the terms, nor may they use their superior bargaining position to extort a state into acceding to onerous new terms in order to get the federal money on which it has come to depend. Whether a particular case involves such an extortion, as opposed to a permissible nudge, depends on the facts. If the feds are too heavy-handed, they run the risk of violating the Tenth Amendment’s federalist division of powers.

Who knew federal judges in ur-statist San Francisco had become such federalists?

Orrick contends that if Trump were to cut off funds from sanctuary cities for failure to assist federal immigration-enforcement officials, it would offend the Tenth Amendment. This is highly unlikely. First, let’s remember — though Orrick studiously forgets — that Trump’s order endorses only such stripping of funds as Congress has already approved. Thus, sanctuary jurisdictions would be ill-suited to claim that they’d been sandbagged. Second, the money likely to be at issue would surely be nothing close to Medicaid funding. Finally, Trump would not be unilaterally rewriting an existing federal–state contract; he’d be calling for the states to follow federal laws that (a) were on the books when the states started taking federal money and (b) pertain to immigration, a legal realm in which the courts have held the federal government is supreme and the states subordinate.

Still, all that said, whether any Trump-administration effort to cut off funding would run afoul of the Tenth Amendment would depend on such considerations as how much funding was actually cut; whether Congress had authorized the cut in designing the funding program; whether the funding was tightly related or unrelated to immigration enforcement; and how big a burden it would be for states to comply with federal demands. Those matters will be impossible to evaluate unless and until the administration actually directs a slashing of funds to a sanctuary jurisdiction.

If that happens, there will almost certainly be no legal infirmity as long as Trump’s E.O. means what it says — namely, that any funding cuts must be consistent with existing federal law. But it hasn’t happened. And as long as it hasn’t happened, there is no basis for a court to involve itself, much less issue an anticipatory ruling.

Such niceties matter only if you’re practicing law, though. Judge Orrick is practicing politics.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.



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