Another judge rules against Trump on border wall

By Josh Gerstein

Another federal judge ruled against President Donald Trump’s unorthodox plan to use billions of dollars in federal funds to extend the wall on the Mexican border, despite Congress’ refusal to appropriate money for that purpose.

El Paso, Texas-based U.S. District Court Judge David Briones’ Friday decision not only rejected the funding scheme, but went further than past rulings by specifically declaring “unlawful” an emergency proclamation Trump issued in February seeking to unlock money to fulfill one of his key campaign promises.

Briones said Congress made clear in a January budget measure ending a partial government shutdown that border wall funding was being denied, beyond $1.3 billion for upgrades of existing barriers.

“The Congressional language in the [bill] reveals Congress’s intent to limit the border barrier funding,” wrote the judge, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton.

Whether the judge’s decision will actually take effect is far from clear, because in July the Supreme Court stayed a ruling from federal courts in California that blocked funding for border wall expansion in California and Arizona.

The rationale for the high court’s action was somewhat murky, but it suggested that a majority of the justices believed the plaintiffs in that suit — an environmental group and a border communities organization— did not to have the legal right to enforce a Congressional budget rider.

It is uncertain whether the justices will view differently the suit Briones ruled on Friday. That case was filed by El Paso County and an immigrant rights group, the Border Network for Human Rights, through a Washington-based watchdog group, Protect Democracy.

Briones said El Paso’s standing was bolstered by indications that $20 million in funds that would otherwise be spent for construction within its borders at the Fort Bliss Army based would be diverted for the border project. He also said the county’s reputation was at risk from the spending because of Trump’s contention that it was needed to check chaos and lawlessness at the border.

The judge appeared intent on halting at least $3.6 billion in spending planned by the administration, but could also sweep in the $2.5 billion in contention in the California case, although the he said he was not taking issue with the Supreme Court’s action three months ago clearing the expenditure of those funds.

Briones not detail the exact scope of the injunction he plans to impose as a result of his ruling. He gave the plaintiffs 10 days to submit specifics for that and five days for the federal government to respond.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling, but lawyers pressing the suit hailed the judge’s decision and said they plan to propose an order blocking a combined $6.1 billion in funding.

“As someone who served in government under a Republican administration, I never imagined a Republican president would attempt to expand executive power this far by overriding the appropriations power that belongs to Congress,” said Stuart Gerson, who served as a senior Justice Department official under former President George H.W. Bush and acting attorney general under Clinton.

“I hope today’s ruling will prompt Republicans in Washington to recommit to the checks and balances that have defined our Republic and protected our freedom,” Gerson added.

“Today’s ruling vindicates the Founders’ wisdom and confirms that the president is not a king, and that he cannot override Congress’s power to decide how to appropriate funds,” said Kristy Parker, an attorney with Protect Democracy.