CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit seemed likely Friday to uphold a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to financially punish so-called sanctuary cities for refusing to enforce federal immigration laws.
In July, Sessions announced the Justice Department would no longer award $385 million in grants to cities and states that refuse to help federal agents detain undocumented immigrants at local jails. Chicago sued over the move last fall.
The federal government provides the money through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which aims to reduce gun violence, equip officers with body cameras, improve mental health services, and reduce unnecessary incarceration.
Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler, arguing for the Justice Department, told the Seventh Circuit on Friday morning that the U.S. attorney general can impose any special condition on local municipalities to receive federal grants, not just the Byrne grant.
“What a slippery slope you are arguing for,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner told him.
“Your argument is that the attorney general can impose any condition in addition to the statutory conditions imposed by Congress. Where is the separation of powers? What is going on?” the judge asked.
The conditions imposed by Sessions “would require Chicago (1) to detain its own residents and others at federal immigration officials’ request, in order to give the federal government a 48-hour notice window prior to an arrestee’s release; and (2) to give federal immigration officials unlimited access to local police stations and law enforcement facilities in order to interrogate any suspected noncitizen held there, effectively federalizing all of the city’s detention facilities,” according to the city’s complaint.
Chicago argues that the statute creating the Byrne grant, passed by Congress, does not authorize the executive branch to place new conditions on it.
In September, a federal judge agreed with the city that Sessions exceeded his authority by tying these two conditions to the Byrne grant and imposed a nationwide injunction on the imposition of any special condition on this money.
Judge Rovner was particularly vocal on Friday in support of the city’s position.
“How is this a case of interference with the federal government as opposed to a refusal to allow police to be conscripted into helping the federal government?” Rovner queried Readler.
She emphasized that the allocation of funds for law enforcement purposes has traditionally always been an area where policy is set by the state, not the federal government.
Readler downplayed the notion that the federal government could use the grants as a weapon to punish local municipalities for refusing to comply with an administration’s demands.
“If [the conditions] become so unreasonable that no city will accept them, the grant program will become obsolete. That would defeat the objective of the grant program,” Readler said.
Judge Rovner was not so sanguine.
“It may very well be the objective. We can’t see what’s down the line,” she said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion told city attorney Benna Ruth Solomon he thinks the city’s reading of the Byrne statute has a “valid point.”
However, he was concerned about Chicago’s possible resistance to cooperating with the federal government regarding the deportation of convicted criminals.
Judge Manion also asked Solomon what the nationwide injunction was for, given that the city could still get relief with a much narrower ruling.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Bauer piped up in response, saying that the injunction doesn’t stop cities from cooperating with the attorney general – “It just says he can’t do anything about it if they don’t.”
Solomon agreed, saying Chicago is not trying to tell any other municipalities what to do.
However, “There is not even a claim in this case that the conditions would apply differently in different jurisdictions,” Solomon argued in support of the nationwide scope of the injunction.
A federal judge in Philadelphia also issued an injunction barring the Justice Department from cutting off Byrne grant funds. That decision has been appealed to the Third Circuit.
In the case before the Seventh Circuit, the Chicago-based appeals court will also consider amicus briefs filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, members of Congress, the California State Legislature, law enforcement leaders, and constitutional law scholars, among others.
The three-judge panel is expected to issue a ruling in the matter within three months.