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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 President Trump.
At issue was a clash between federal power and states' rights.
The Trump administration's challenge was launched by former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. He insisted California was unconstitutionally interfering with federal immigration enforcement. But the Supreme Court, in a decision written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, has said state and local officials are not obliged to carry out federal enforcement. That states' rights doctrine appears to have prevailed. Even Trump's two appointees — Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — refused to hear the administration's appeal.
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said he was gratified by the decision and believed it was a “huge step forward.” He said the court’s reasoning followed “precedent and the interpretation of the Constitution the way it has been for 200 years.”
Despite the victory, Becerra said that he worried that the high-profile case and the federal government’s position had damaged trust in immigrant communities.
“Even [when] the Trump administration loses, in many ways their anti-immigration, hostile agenda can still win because the message reverberates,” Becerra said. “Go into a community where there are lots of immigrant families and see if they believe that anyone wearing a uniform is there to protect them and not deport them. … Especially right now, in this time of real pain, having trust in the people that are supposed to keep you safe is crucial.”
Separately Monday, the court also refused to hear several cases involving gun rights and police immunity. The justices for now appear unready to reconsider past rulings that gave states ample authority to regulate guns and to shield police from lawsuits.
Gun-rights advocates have been confident that the justices were ready to grant them the ability to carry guns in public. But so far, the court's majority has given state and local officials considerable leeway in deciding who may obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
In California, gun owners must show they have "good cause" to carry a gun, and law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other urban areas do not grant many such permits.
The court had also been under pressure to reconsider the "qualified immunity" that shields police from many lawsuits involving excessive force. But Congress is also moving to reconsider the doctrine as a part of wide-ranging legislation on police reform. And for now, the justices appear unwilling to revisit the issue.
In challenging California's sanctuary law, 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 Gen. 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 writtenby Scalia that 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 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 immigrants are being held for serious or violent crimes, including prisoners who are serving time in the state system.
The case was called United States vs. California. 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 Sessions, filed suit against California seeking to have the state law declared invalid. But a federal judge in Sacramento and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to do so and instead ruled that state and local officials were not obstructing federal agents. "Refusing to help is not the same as impeding," said U.S. District Judge John Mendez.
Although the state's lawyers cited conservative precedents upholding states' rights, Trump's lawyers relied 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.”
Times staff writer Anita Chabria in Sacramento contributed to this report.