Ilana Diamond Rovner
Ilana Diamond Rovner

The Trump administration overstepped its bounds when it threatened to withhold public safety funds from Chicago and other sanctuary cities, a federal appeals court held Thursday.

The 7th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled the administration trespassed on Congress’ territory by placing conditions on the receipt of funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant by cities that refuse to help enforce immigration law.

“The imposition of the challenged conditions in this manner is an abrogation of the legislative process,” Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner wrote for a panel of the court. “Preservation of the separation of powers is paramount if our democracy is to survive.”

While all the panel members agreed that conditioning government grants on the recipient’s cooperation with immigration officials is unlawful, they split 2-1 when it came to the appropriate relief.

The panel’s majority concluded a nationwide injunction is needed even though Chicago was the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the conditions placed on Byrne JAG awards.

The U.S. Justice Department maintained at oral argument that it is not clear if funds withheld from other sanctuary cities would be used to increase Chicago’s award, the majority wrote.

However, it wrote, the department went on to argue that “such redistribution would be a windfall of which Chicago could not complain.”

That notion, the majority wrote, “is an odd one.”

“It is the equivalent of arguing that a victim of an unlawful pyramid scheme can receive proper relief from the illegal conduct if that victim is given a cut of the profits of that very same ongoing unlawful scheme,” Rovner wrote.

Joining the majority opinion was Judge William J. Bauer.

In a separate opinion, Judge Daniel A. Manion agreed the conditions placed on Byrne JAG awards were unlawful.

But he maintained the injunction should be limited to Chicago.

“Broad, sweeping relief of such nature is rarely appropriate,” Manion wrote. “And nothing indicates Chicago needs a nationwide injunction to preserve its Byrne JAG award.”

As a sanctuary city, Chicago refuses to turn over undocumented foreign nationals not suspected of serious crimes to immigration authorities for deportation.

Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance states that cooperation with authorities by everyone — whether documented or undocumented — “is essential to achieve the [c]ity’s goals of protecting life and property, preventing crime and resolving problems.”

In 2005, Congress established the Byrne JAG program. Over the years, the city of Chicago has used funds from the program to cover overtime pay, help support not-for-profit community organizations and buy police vehicles and other equipment.

In a move aimed at sanctuary cities, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in July 2017 announced the Trump administration was placing conditions on the receipt of Byrne JAG funds related to municipalities’ dealings with immigrants.

Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel filed a suit in federal court in August 2017 challenging the conditions.

The conditions would have required police to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents advance notice before a noncitizen is released from custody and to allow those agents unrestricted access to police stations and lockups.

Another condition would have required jurisdictions to certify their compliance with federal laws that bar local governments from restricting the sharing of immigration status information with immigration authorities.

In September 2017, U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber held the notice and access conditions were unconstitutional. He issued a preliminary injunction halting enforcement of those conditions.

The 7th Circuit in April 2018 upheld the nationwide scope of the preliminary injunction in City of Chicago v. Sessions, 888 F.3d 272 (7th Cir. 2018) (“Chicago I”).

Leinenweber later ruled the compliance condition as well as the notice and access conditions were unconstitutional. He issued a permanent injunction halting the application of the three conditions to fiscal year 2017 Byrne JAG grant.

Leinenweber wrote he enjoined the conditions only in 2017 “in the hope that DOJ would not reimpose its unlawful conditions.”

But the Justice Department imposed those conditions to fiscal year 2018 Byrne JAG awards.

The department also added additional conditions, including one that would bar grant recipients from disclosing any law enforcement information “in a direct or indirect attempt” to harbor any undocumented immigrant.

In October 2018, the city filed another suit seeking to block the Trump administration from imposing the immigration-related conditions to fiscal year 2018 awards.

Leinenweber in September 2019 held the conditions violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution. He issued a nationwide injunction barring the administration from imposing the conditions on all future Byrne JAG grants.

The administration appealed Leinenweber’s rulings in both cases. The appeals were consolidated.

In the portion of Thursday’s opinion joined by all three judges, the 7th Circuit wrote the administration’s attempt to add conditions to Byrne JAG awards “strikes at the heart” of the separation-of-powers doctrine.

“The authority to pass laws and the power of the purse rest in the legislative not the executive branch,” Rovner wrote.

Allowing the executive branch to exercise those powers, she wrote, would open the way to abuse.

“Such a concentration of power would allow tyranny to flourish, and our system of government is wisely set up by the [f]ounders to foreclose such a danger,” Rovner wrote.

The case is City of Chicago v. William P. Barr, Nos. 18-2885 and 19-3290.

The court decided the appeal in the suit filed in 2018 on the briefs.

Benna Ruth Solomon of the Chicago Corporation Counsel’s Office argued the case before the 7th Circuit on behalf of the city in the suit filed in 2017.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement the city is pleased with the ruling and pleased that Emanuel challenged the Byrne JAG conditions.

“This is the first court of appeals ruling to strike down these conditions on a program-wide and forward-looking basis, ordering that the Justice Department cannot impose them anywhere in the country, now or in the future,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

“This is a meaningful victory for the [c]ity and our residents, and for state and local governments everywhere that share our welcoming values.”

Daniel Tenny of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., argued the case on behalf of the government.

The Justice Department could not be reached for comment