WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the Trump administration’s challenge to a California “sanctuary” law, leaving intact rules that prohibit law enforcement officials from aiding federal agents in taking custody of immigrants as they are released from jail.
Only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to hear the administration’s appeal.
The court’s action is a major victory for California in its long running battle with Trump.
At issue was a clash between federal power and states’ rights.
Trump’s lawyers said the federal government has exclusive authority over immigrants, and they said the state is obstructing federal enforcement of the law.
“Aliens are present and may remain in the United States only as provided for under the auspices of federal immigration law,” Solicitor General Noel Francisco said in his appeal. “It therefore is the United States, not California, that ‘retains the right’ to set the conditions under which aliens in this country may be detained, released, and removed. As a result of SB 54, criminal aliens have evaded the detention and removal that Congress prescribed, and have instead returned to the civilian population, where they are disproportionately likely to commit additional crimes.”
In response, California’s lawyers argued the Constitution’s 10th Amendment makes clear that state officials need not enforce a federal law. They relied in part on a 1997 opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia which held that federal authorities may not “commandeer” state or local officials to carry out a federal law. In that case, Printz vs. United States, the high court said local sheriffs could not be required to conduct background checks on buyers of handguns.
The same principle applies when enforcing federal immigration law, said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in defense of the law. “SB 54 regulates the use of the state’s own resources. It establishes the conditions under which state and local law enforcement agencies may deploy public funds and personnel to assist with federal immigration enforcement,” he wrote.
California’s lawyers also stressed that the state cooperates with federal agents if they have a judicial warrant or if the immigrants are being held for serious or violent crimes, including prisoners who are serving time in the state system.
The state legislature adopted the California Values Act in 2017 after the Trump administration stepped up enforcement against immigrants living illegally in this country. State lawmakers said they were concerned that “local entanglement in federal immigration enforcement threatens trust between California’s immigrant community and state and local law enforcement agencies.” If so, immigrants will “fear approaching police when they are victims of, and witnesses to, crimes, jeopardizing public safety for all Californians,” the state’s lawyers said.
The Trump administration, led by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, filed suit against California seeking to have the state law declared invalid. But a federal judge in Sacramento and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused and ruled state and local officials were not obstructing federal agents. “Refusing to help not the same as impeding,” said U.S. District Judge John Mendez.
While the state’s lawyers rely on conservative precedents upholding states’ rights, Trump’s lawyers rely on a liberal ruling by the Supreme Court in 2012 that sided with the Obama administration and voided much of an Arizona law that would have empowered local police to arrest and detain immigrants in the country illegally.
In Arizona vs. United States, the high court stressed then that immigration enforcement is a federal matter. Quoting that opinion, Francisco said the “supremacy of the national power” in immigration enforcement was “made clear by the Constitution.”
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