CHICAGO (CN) – Citing the need to check the potential “tyranny” of the executive branch, the Seventh Circuit upheld a nationwide preliminary injunction Thursday blocking U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to financially punish so-called sanctuary cities for refusing to enforce federal immigration laws.
“The founders of our country well understood that the concentration of power threatens individual liberty and established a bulwark against such tyranny by creating a separation of powers among the branches of government,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote in Thursday’s ruling.
Rovner continued, “If the executive branch can determine policy, and then use the power of the purse to mandate compliance with that policy by the state and local governments, all without the authorization or even acquiescence of elected legislators, that check against tyranny is forsaken.”
Last year, 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.
But a federal judge in Chicago issued a nationwide injunction in September against the new requirements tied to the Byrne grant.
At oral arguments in January, Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler told the Seventh Circuit that the U.S. attorney general can impose any special condition on local municipalities to receive federal grants.
“What a slippery slope you are arguing for,” Judge 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?” she asked.
Rovner’s 35-page majority opinion reiterates the same concern for maintaining the Constitution’s separation of powers.
“The power of the purse rests with Congress, which authorized the federal funds at issue and did not impose any immigration enforcement conditions on the receipt of such funds,” she wrote. “In fact, Congress repeatedly refused to approve of measures that would tie funding to state and local immigration policies.”
Rovner noted that Congress did vest the attorney general with authority to impose conditions on grants under the Violence Against Women Act, but specifically did not include that language in the Byrne grant.
“The attorney general’s argument that such sweeping authority over the major source of funding for law enforcement agencies nationwide was provided to the assistant attorney general by merely adding a clause to a sentence in a list of otherwise‐ministerial powers defies reason,” the judge said.
The Seventh Circuit panel, composed of all Republican-appointed judges, also upheld the nationwide scope of the injunction.
“The harm to the attorney general is minimized because the attorney general can distribute the funds without mandating the conditions—as has been done for over a decade,” the ruling states.
U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion dissented from this second part of the panel’s decision, saying he believes the nationwide injunction to be “an overstep of the district court’s authority.”
The three-judge panel was rounded out by U.S. Circuit Judge William Bauer
Thirty-seven cities and counties joined the case as amici asking the district court to uphold the injunction, and 14 states plus the District of Columbia filed amicus briefs urging the Seventh Circuit to do the same.