Federal judge dismisses Texas' sanctuary cities lawsuit

2017-08-10 | El Paso Times

Aug. 10--AUSTIN -- U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday dismissed Attorney General Ken Paxton's lawsuit against Austin, El Paso County and other local governments over the state's new ban on so-called sanctuary cities.

Paxton filed a preemptive lawsuit in federal court hours after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the ban into law in May, asking that it be declared constitutional.

While Sparks' decision avoided commenting on the legal merits of the sanctuary cities law, he added a footnote to the ruling that included a broader statement on state and local efforts to regulate immigration in Texas.

"The federal government has the exclusive power to enforce immigration laws, and regardless of its intent, no state or local entity can interfere with the enforcement of these laws," Sparks wrote.

Sparks' decision means the primary legal battle over the "sanctuary cities" ban will take place in federal court in San Antonio, where cities and immigration rights groups have sued the state over the law.

Paxton said he would continue to defend the ban in court.

"The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable," he said in a statement. "We're disappointed with the court's ruling and look forward to pressing our winning arguments in the San Antonio cases and beyond (if necessary) on this undoubtedly constitutional law."

The so-called sanctuary cities ban, known as Senate Bill 4, lets local law enforcement officials ask people they detain about their immigration status and prevents local policies that prohibit officials from enforcing federal immigration laws.

The ban goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Paxton argued in the lawsuit that El Paso County and other local governments maintain policies that prevent law enforcement officers from complying with federal immigration officials, and that such policies would continue once Senate Bill 4 becomes law.

"The State's own argument underscores its deficiencies," Sparks wrote in his ruling. "Because SB 4 does not take effect until September 1, 2017, it is impossible for Defendants to take any action that would violate the not-yet-effective law. The mere fact that a municipal policy was instituted before a law was signed, or that it remains in place prior to the law taking effect, does not equate to a violation of the law."

Attorneys for the state urged Sparks to consolidate cases during a hearing in June, arguing that Austin was the proper venue for legal debates over laws that have yet to take effect.

Jose Garza, an attorney for El Paso County and Sheriff Richard Wiles, filed a motion to dismiss Paxton's lawsuit, calling it an effort to "conjure a case or controversy out of thin air based solely on El Paso County's decision to file suit against the State of Texas."

"I think Judge Sparks did exactly what most of us felt he would do -- he tossed out a frivolous lawsuit," said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. "Maybe now we can actually get, through the legal system, some clarification on what the state can and can't do when it comes to immigration law."

El Paso County, El Paso and other cities across the state are asking a federal judge in San Antonio to temporarily block implementation of the law. Attorneys for the different local governments argue that the law is too vague and could lead to racial profiling.

"The court ruled primarily that the state of Texas did not have standing to sue El Paso, other cities and counties," El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said. "The judge did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, on the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4. We are waiting still for the federal judge in San Antonio to make the ruling on the constitutionality of the law."

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia's court in San Antonio, putting the support of the Trump administration behind Texas' new law.

Garcia has not ruled on the request for a preliminary injunction.

Madlin Mekelburg may be reached at 512-479-6606; mmekelburg@elpasotimes.com; @madlinbmek on Twitter.

El Paso Times reporter Aileen Flores contributed to this report.