WASHINGTON ― The White House, and subsequently President Donald Trump himself, misconstrued a federal judge’s ruling and the law to make yet another attack on the judicial branch, this time over so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t fully cooperate with deportation efforts.
The comments, in an official White House statement late Tuesday and a series of tweets by the president on Wednesday, focus on a ruling that blocked part of Trump’s January executive order that would strip law enforcement funds from jurisdictions to bully them into compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Orrick issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on the order after a legal challenge from Santa Clara County, California, and the city of San Francisco.
The White House quickly attacked him personally, and the president followed up by attacking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ― which isn’t even the court that made the ruling. And in doing so, they twisted the meanings of both the ruling and the law.
“This case is yet one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge,” the White House said in a statement. “Today’s ruling undermines faith in our legal system and raises serious questions about circuit shopping. ... This San Francisco judge’s erroneous ruling is a gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country, empowering the worst kind of human trafficking and sex trafficking, and putting thousands of innocent lives at risk.”
Wednesday’s attacks are part of an alarming pattern involving Trump and his administration attacking the independent judiciary. In mistakenly referring to the 9th Circuit, Trump seemed to have confused Tuesday’s ruling with the February ruling that halted his executive order banning travel and immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.
In ruling against Trump, the 9th Circuit Court upheld a prior ruling from federal judge James Robart, who issued a restraining order on Trump’s ban. Trump also attacked Robart in February, referring to him as “this so-called judge.”
Last week, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, took aim at Derrick Watson, the federal judge in Hawaii who blocked the administration’s revised travel ban in March.
“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power,” he said.
After widespread criticism, Sessions stood by his comments, saying that he was “raising the point of that issue of a single judge taking such a dramatic action and the impact that it could have.”
The administration’s statements are also part of a broader pattern of painting undocumented immigrants as dangerous criminals and any efforts short of full cooperation with deportation efforts as unlawful.
The “sanctuary cities” issue is complex because there’s no formal definition of the term ― the Trump administration has even said it doesn’t have one. There are a wide array of different policies around the country, but the term is most often applied to jurisdictions that do not hold all undocumented immigrants solely based on ICE’s requests. Local officials say that detaining people they would otherwise release is unduly expensive, harms police-community relations and violates the Constitution ― something courts have agreed with.
Trump and his administration have stated and implied that it’s against the law for jurisdictions to decline voluntary requests to detain people for ICE ― something legal experts say is not true. To do so, the administration cites part of the U.S. legal code ― 8 U.S.C. 1373 ― that doesn’t even relate to detaining immigrants. Instead, it says jurisdictions must provide information to federal law enforcement.
The White House’s statement on Tuesday conflates the two.
“[A]ccording to Congress, a city that prohibits its officials from providing information to federal immigration authorities ― a sanctuary city ― is violating the law,” the White House said, not incorrectly.
“Sanctuary cities, like San Francisco, block their jails from turning over criminal aliens to Federal authorities for deportation,” the White House continued. “These cities are engaged in the dangerous and unlawful nullification of Federal law in an attempt to erase our borders.”
Prohibiting officials from providing information to federal immigration authorities isn’t the same thing as blocking jails from turning over people in their custody ― some of them not even convicted of a crime ― to ICE.
The White House’s repeated statements about the nature of the law actually contributed to the judge’s ruling, which explicitly states that the federal government can continue to enforce Section 1373.
A federal government attorney argued in court that the executive order was solely over that provision and that, accordingly, it would hardly even affect San Francisco or many other jurisdictions.
Orrick said in his ruling that “[t]his interpretation renders the Order toothless; the Government can already enforce these three grants by the terms of those grants and can enforce 8 U.S.C. 1373 to the extent legally possible under the terms of existing law.” He says specifically that the ruling “does not affect the ability of the Attorney General or the Secretary to enforce existing conditions of federal grants or 8 U.S.C. 1373, nor does it impact the Secretary’s ability to develop regulations or other guidance defining what a sanctuary jurisdiction is or designating a jurisdiction as such.”
“It does prohibit the Government from exercising Section 9(a) in a way that violates the Constitution,” Orrick wrote, referring to the section of the executive order regarding “sanctuary cities.”
Attorneys for Santa Clara and San Francisco said the vague language of the order, along with comments from the president and Sessions, suggested that the federal government planned to go much farther in a way that violated the Constitution.
The judge sided with them and said the order would likely violate the Constitution by depriving a jurisdiction of funds unrelated to immigration. He also said it would likely violate the separation of powers between the states and federal government. (The White House’s statement makes no mention of either argument.)
Part of his reasoning was over the president’s and his administration’s own words ― once again coming back to bite them in court ― that implied they intended to apply the order broadly.
“[I]f there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments,” Orrick wrote. “The President has called it ‘a weapon’ to use against jurisdictions that disagree with his preferred policies of immigration enforcement. ... [The order’s sanctuary cities provision] is not reasonably susceptible to the new, narrow interpretation offered at the hearing.”
The White House promised to continue to fight in court, where these types of statements will likely be cited by its opponents.
“In the meantime, we will pursue all legal remedies to the sanctuary city threat that imperils our citizens, and continue our efforts to ramp up enforcement to remove the criminal and gang element from our country,” the White House said. “Ultimately, this is a fight between sovereignty and open borders, between the rule of law and lawlessness, and between hardworking Americans and those who would undermine their safety and freedom.”