Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration were handed another stark defeat in their effort to punish sanctuary cities, with a judge declaring a law the administration had been relying on unconstitutional.
In a terse 58-page opinion, a Reagan-nominated district court judge thoroughly rebuked Sessions' efforts to penalize sanctuary cities, saying efforts he has taken to impose immigration-related conditions on federal law enforcement grants are unconstitutional. The judge also called the underlying law that the administration has pointed to as justifying its efforts unconstitutional.
The ruling will only apply to the city of Chicago for now -- but the judge said he intends for his ruling to apply nationwide.
Judge Harry Leinenweber had also previously temporarily blocked the grant conditions, which the appellate court upheld.
But now Leinenweber has gone even further - making his initial ruling permanent and going beyond it to strike down the underlying law, referred to as Section 1373.
The administration has pointed to the obscure law in all of its sanctuary city lawsuits, the vast majority of which it has lost. The law mandates that local governments share immigration status of individuals with the federal government.
The Justice Department has argued that law should be interpreted broadly to mandate cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. But citing a recent Supreme Court ruling, Leinenweber did the opposite -- striking down the law itself as unconstitutional.
Like a Philadelphia judge before him, Leinenweber has found that the Supreme Court's recent ruling legalizing state gambling laws also applies here. The Supreme Court found in May that the federal government cannot prohibit states from passing laws they choose, in that case, legalizing gambling.
Leinenweber noted that ruling came between when he had first considered the case preliminarily and now, and based on that precedent, Section 1373 is also unconstitutional.
The Philadelphia ruling only applied to that city. For now, so will Friday's ruling. But Leinenweber was clear that he intends the ruling to apply nationwide. The full appellate court is currently considering whether his earlier ruling should apply nationwide, and he temporarily kept his ruling limited to Chicago in deference to that process.
Once the pause is lifted, the striking down of the underlying law would apply nationwide.
In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley called the ruling a "victory for criminal aliens," saying they can "continue to commit crimes in the city" with impunity from immigration enforcement.
"The Justice Department continues to maintain that we exercised our authority, given by Congress, to attach conditions -- designed to keep Americans safe -- to public safety grants, and we will continue to fight to carry out the Department's commitment to the rule of law, protecting public safety, and keeping criminal aliens off the streets," O'Malley said.
In his ruling, Leinenweber noted that "the Attorney General has not mustered any other convincing argument in support of greater statutory authority" since his earlier ruling, and "nothing has shaken this Court from the opinion it expressed at (that) stage."
Leinenweber also recently accepted similar lawsuits from the state of Illinois and the US Conference of Mayors, setting the stage for him to potentially quickly enter judgments that apply to more jurisdictions than Chicago.
Sanctuary city is a catch-all term used to describe jurisdictions that in some way don't cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, especially in terms of detaining immigrants for extra time in jail so they can be picked up by federal authorities or allowing federal agents into jails to take custody of immigrants. Federal authorities say the enforcement is necessary to keep communities safe, but many local police chiefs say they have policies against such cooperation in order to preserve local resources and maintain essential trust with immigrant communities and victims of crimes.