On Tuesday, a federal judge in Northern California blocked the Trump Administration's executive order threatening to withhold all federal funding from so-called "sanctuary" cities and counties and the State of California. His reasoning had nothing to do with whether the policy was sound.
The ruling was quite straightforward in saying that the Power of the Purse lies with Congress, so an executive order can have no power to change the conditions of federal funds.
Nevertheless, a White House statement called the case "yet one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge." It went on to claim that he "unilaterally rewrote immigration policy for our nation."
Let's consider the ruling and its underlying reasoning.
To fairly claim that the judge unilaterally rewrote our immigration policy, it would have to be the case that the judge's ruling changed that policy in some way. It did not.
Here is the relevant part of Trump's executive order, Section 9(a): The U.S. Attorney General and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security "shall ensure that all jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply" with the law "are not eligible to receive federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement."
As the federal government conceded in its oral argument, Section 9(a) would place additional restrictions on grants that have already been offered by Congress, which an executive order does not have the power to do. Although the order appears to threaten any and all federal funding, in reality the order is merely an exercise of the President's "bully pulpit," admitted the acting assistant attorney general tasked with defending it.
What the order does do is reiterate existing policy regarding a small number of grants that are already predicated on the recipient governments' willingness to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Although the government's concession appeared to end the case, the judge was very careful to spell out all of the reasons the order failed to change the law.
"It is heartening that the government's lawyers recognize that the order cannot do more constitutionally than enforce existing law," he wrote, and then went on to address the reasonable fear that the administration might wrongfully try to enforce a broader policy.
"The Constitution vests the spending powers in Congress, not the president, so the order cannot constitutionally place new conditions on federal funds," he concluded.
A spokesperson for one of the plaintiffs, Santa Clara County issued a statement on the ruling: "The politics of fear emanating from the Trump White House has just suffered a major setback."
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