Federal appeals court says Texas ‘sanctuary cities’ law can stand for now

  • Protesters against Texas Senate Bill 4, the Sanctuary City law, in front of the San Antonio Federal Courthouse in June 2017. Robin Jerstad—TNS

The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that most of Texas’ “sanctuary cities” law can remain in effect while the legal battle continues in a lower district court, a major victory for the state.

With the exception of a statute that would punish local officials for endorsing policies that limit federal immigration enforcement, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the rest of the law to stand. The court blocked that section of the law because it deemed the word “endorse” to be too broad and risked subjecting local officials to punishment for speaking out against the law, a violation of the First Amendment guarantee to free speech. Officials who act on limiting federal immigration enforcement, however, are still subject to punishment.

“With one exception, SB 4’s provisions do not, on their face, violate the Constitution,” the court’s opinion reads.

The ruling comes after Attorney General Ken Paxton challenged a San Antonio district judge’s decision to block the law in August. Plaintiffs in the case used the state’s appeal to argue that the law should be blocked entirely.

In September, a separate three-judge panel from the appeals court allowed parts of the law to go into effect. Since then, the state has implemented the law on a limited basis and began accepting residents’ complaints.

Tuesday’s decision lets most of the go into full effect until the legal battle in a district court is over.

Texas officials celebrated the ruling.

“Texas Ban on Sanctuary City Policies upheld by Federal Court of Appeals,” Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted. “Allegations of discrimination were rejected. Law is in effect.”

Paxton praised the ruling in a prepared statement.

“I’m pleased the 5th Circuit recognized that Senate Bill 4 is lawful, constitutional and protects the safety of law enforcement officers and all Texans,” Paxton said. “Enforcing immigration law prevents the release of individuals from custody who have been charged with serious crimes. Dangerous criminals shouldn’t be allowed back into our communities to possibly commit more crimes.”

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case before the appeals court, said the plaintiffs are exploring their legal options.

“The court made clear that we remain free to challenge the manner in which the law is implemented, so we will be monitoring the situation on the ground closely,” he said in a written statement. “We are also pleased that the court narrowed the law in certain respects.”

The plaintiffs include all of Texas’ largest cities, including Dallas, as well as several counties and civil rights organizations.

Grand Prairie Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the House Democratic Caucus, said the legal battle isn’t over.

“Senate Bill 4 is unnecessary, makes Texas communities less safe and complicates law enforcement officials’ already-difficult jobs,” he said in a prepared statement. “Today’s ruling is one step in what is likely a long legal battle and I remain hopeful that this law will eventually be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.”