U.S. appeals court upholds most of California’s ‘sanctuary’ laws

A federal appeals court on Thursday largely rejected the Trump administration's request to block three California laws that extend protections to people in the country illegally. Above, protesters gather outside a Sacramento courthouse in 2018 to support the laws.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A federal appeals court decided unanimously Thursday that most of California’s so-called sanctuary laws can continue to be enforced, rejecting the bulk of a lawsuit brought by the Trump administration.

The decision, authored by a Republican appointee on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, was a sweeping victory for California. The court’s only concern about the legality of the three sanctuary laws was that no costs should be imposed on the federal government.

The three-judge panel refused to block the centerpiece of the sanctuary package — a law that prohibits police and sheriff’s officials from notifying federal immigration authorities of the release dates of immigrant inmates.


That law “may well frustrate the federal government’s immigration enforcement efforts,” Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., who was appointed by President George W. Bush, wrote for the court. “However, whatever the wisdom of the underlying policy adopted by California, that frustration is permissible.”

The court also upheld a law that requires employers to notify workers of inspections by immigration agents.

The court said the law did “not treat the federal government worse than anyone else; indeed, it does not regulate federal operations at all.”

But the court said that the state, in inspecting federal detention centers, cannot impose requirements on the federal government that will force it to spend money.

Specifically, the federal appeals court cited a provision that allows California to examine the circumstances surrounding the apprehension and transfer of immigrants in federal centers.

“Only those provisions that impose an additional economic burden exclusively on the federal government are invalid,” the court said.


The panel sent that part of the case back to the district court to reconsider.

The Trump administration sued California in March 2018 to invalidate the three sanctuary laws.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez, also appointed by Bush, upheld most of the package of laws several months later. He rejected a provision that established fines for private employers who voluntarily allow immigration agents to visit workplaces.

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra expressed pleasure with Thursday’s ruling.

“As much as all the attention is on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice,” he said, “we continue to prove in California that the rule of law not only stands for something but that people cannot act outside of it.

“The 9th Circuit ruled in our favor today, demonstrating that the rights of states and the 10th Amendment continue to thrive,” he added.

Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, praised the ruling for rejecting “the federal government’s attempt to force localities into carrying out a hateful and discriminatory agenda.”

“This decision underscores what we’ve always known: Local governments are within their right to limit their involvement with deportations and detention,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

The Trump administration could ask a larger panel of the 9th Circuit to review Thursday’s ruling or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

The administration’s challenge of the sanctuary laws last year prompted then-Gov. Jerry Brown to declare that Trump was “basically going to war against the state of California” and “initiating a reign of terror.”

Then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions at the time accused California of “actively obstructing federal law enforcement.”

“California, we have a problem,” he told a conference of the California Peace Officers Assn. a day after filing the suit.

Sessions pledged to fight the state’s “irrational, unfair and unconstitutional policies.”

Twitter: @mauradolan