Shielding Sanctuary Cities

Peter Holmes ’84 Leads Seattle Challenge to Executive Order
Peter Holmes

Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes ’84 filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.

December 26, 2017

Though it has so far received less attention than the Trump administration’s “travel ban,” another executive order seeking to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities is also facing legal challenges, one of them filed by Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes ’84 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued Jan. 25, declares that sanctuary cities —  those that refuse to comply with requests by federal immigration officials to detain those believed to have entered the country illegally — “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated that the Justice Department will require all cities to verify that they are in compliance with federal immigration law and threatened to withhold federal funds from cities that refuse.

In a March 29 press conference, Holmes denounced the administration’s “continual saber- rattling” and said the suit “represents Seattle’s attempt to mute histrionics in favor of a plain statement of the law. I hope the president will refrain from tweeting his legal opinion before our courts have an opportunity to do so.”

Seattle and Portland seek a declaratory judgment that they are in compliance with applicable immigration laws. But they further allege that the executive order is unconstitutionally vague and violates both the 10th Amendment, by attempting to require them to enforce federal immigration law, and the spending clause of Article I, by threatening to withhold federal funds as a means of coercing cities to comply with federal policy. 

The spending clause argument relies in part of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down portions of the Affordable Care Act in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. Holmes acknowledged the irony in liberals citing Chief Justice John Roberts and the 10th Amendment, traditionally a conservative shield, against a perceived overreach of federal government, but adds, “I think there is a beautiful symmetry here.”

In April, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against the executive order in a suit filed by the city of San Francisco and Santa Clara County. That case is currently pending before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Holmes said that the executive order has already caused a drop-off in domestic violence prosecutions, as abused women refuse to press charges for fear that they might be deported. The two-term city attorney, who is seeking re-election this fall, was instrumental in persuading the Washington Legislature to change state law six years ago to reduce the maximum sentence for misdemeanors from 365 to 364 days, so that a conviction would not subject the defendant to deportation under federal immigration law.  

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