Supreme Court turns aside Justice Department, won't hear California sanctuary cities case

The state law in question bars police from notifying the feds when immigrants are being released after serving time for local crimes.
ICE Field Office Director, Enforcement and Removal Operations, David Marin and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team search for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne
An agent with IU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) searches for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne, Calif., on March 1, 2020.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will not take up a legal battle over whether local governments can declare themselves sanctuaries and refuse to help federal agents enforce immigration laws.

As is the usual custom, the court declined to say why it won’t hear the issue. Two of the court's most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said they would have voted to hear the case.

The Trump administration asked the court to hear its appeal of lower court rulings that upheld a California law related to immigration. It bars police departments and sheriff's offices from notifying federal agents when immigrants are about to be released after serving sentences for local crimes.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco said local officials have no duty to help immigration agents enforce federal law.

The Justice Department has faced similar court defeats, despite a federal law — one which the Obama administration tried to enforce as well — that conditions receipt of federal crime-fighting funds on a commitment to give immigration officials notice before people here illegally are released from jail, so that they can be detained and deported.

Supporters of the sanctuary laws say they make communities safer by encouraging undocumented victims of crime to cooperate with police.

"Nothing in federal law precludes states from defining the circumstances under which state and local officials may use state resources to participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law," lawyers for California said their legal brief.

But the Justice Department said California has no right "to obstruct federal law by adopting policies governing the regulation of aliens," and cannot "adopt a law that makes the jobs of federal immigration authorities more difficult."

The lower courts are divided on the issue. Two other federal courts of appeal agreed with the Ninth Circuit, upholding sanctuary city provisions in Chicago and Philadelphia.

But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the Justice Department can refuse to give crime fighting money to cities and states that consider themselves sanctuaries and refuse to share information with federal immigration authorities.

That unanimous ruling was a defeat for New York City and seven states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington. They sued after the Justice Department said in 2017 that it would withhold federal grants to local governments that withheld information about undocumented immigrants in their jails.