Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Obama Immigration Order

Last week a federal judge in Washington, D.C. dismissed a lawsuit claiming President Obama’s immigration executive action is unconstitutional. Disagreeing with a federal ruling from a Pennsylvania district that found the President’s actions to be unconstitutional, Judge Beryl Howell rejected a lawsuit filed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an Arizona lawman who has earned a reputation for his aggressive approach in enforcing immigration laws against undocumented aliens.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio Files Lawsuit against Presidential Immigration Action

The Maricopa County Sheriff Office (MCSO), headed by Joe Arpaio, has a tumultuous and controversial relationship with federal immigration law and undocumented aliens that has resulted in findings of racial profiling targeting Hispanics by a federal court and the Department of Justice. Given the Sheriff’s ongoing battle with the federal government over immigration policing, it is unsurprising that Arpaio took issue with the President’s executive order in November that granted a form of amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants that opened a path to citizenship by withholding DOJ prosecution.  Almost immediately after the President’s announcement, Sheriff Arpaio filed a lawsuit claiming that the President had overextend his authority in providing a unilateral decree of amnesty that prevented the department from initiating deportation procedures against Mexican immigrants in the country illegally.

According to Sheriff Arpaio’s lawsuit, the MCSO has experienced overcrowding in jails because the administration has ordered the DOJ not to prosecute deportation cases in accordance with President Obama’s order.  The Sheriff’s lawsuit asked that the federal court system find the President’s action unconstitutional and force the DOJ to prosecute undocumented aliens in accordance with procedure before the executive order.  Although Sheriff Arpaio claimed his department was harmed by the President’s action, Judge Howell dismissed the case after finding the MCSO’s harm was not significant enough for the federal judiciary to take on a policy-making role that is best left to Congress.

Sheriff Arpaio’s Lawsuit Dismissed by Federal Judge

Judge Howell focused on two primary legal issues in her opinion dismissing Sheriff Arpaio’s lawsuit: 1) the Sheriff and his office did not have legal standing to file a lawsuit against the policy; and 2) the Constitution grants the authority to determine immigration policy to Congress, not the federal courts.

Legal standing to file a lawsuit requires, among other things, that the plaintiff suffered a harm that can be remedied by judicial action.  When challenging federal policy, a plaintiff must directly connect the law, or in this case executive action, with a clearly identifiable cost or injury created by the government.  Despite Arpaio’s claims that his department suffered a harm as measured by overcrowded jails due to the President’s immigration policy which peeled back DOJ deportation prosecutions, Judge Howell was unconvinced that the MCSO had suffered sufficient harm to file a lawsuit.  Calling the basis for the grievance “A Federal policy causes his office to expand resources in a manner that he deems suboptimal,” Howell declined to accept such a broad definition of harm which, if recognized, could “permit nearly all state officials to challenge a host of Federal laws simply because they disagree with how many—or how few—Federal resources are brought to bear on local interests.”

Howell also suggested that even if Arpaio’s lawsuit had demonstrated sufficient harm, she would be disinclined to take the case because doing so may infringe on the duty of Congress to overwrite the President’s order by way of legislative action.  Stating that the role of the judiciary is not to engage in policy making “better left to the political branches,” Judge Howell argued that Congressional action is the appropriate remedy to a wayward executive order.  Howell acknowledged that Arpaio’s case raised “important questions regarding the impact of illegal immigration on this Nation,” but felt that Arpaio’s grievance was not the appropriate means of altering immigration policy.

Judge Howell Criticizes Opposing Federal Ruling

As I discussed last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania concluded that the President had overstepped his authority by issuing a unilateral immigration order.  Judge Howell, whose decision turned on principals limiting involvement of the federal judiciary, dedicated a portion of her opinion to a comment on Judge Arthur Schwab’s procedurally unusual decision.  Judge Howell largely disagreed with Judge Schwab’s decision to include a general rebuke of President Obama’s immigration action in a criminal case involving deportation as a possible sentence, which, according to Howell, was an example of a federal judge unnecessarily going out of his way to find the Presidential order unconstitutional.

With two sharply contrasting judicial opinions about the role of the federal judiciary in reviewing the President’s executive action in the books, and several more lawsuits against the President’s immigration order in the works, the legal debate continues to intensify.  As more federal judges entertain claims that the President overextended his constitutional authority, their opinions will shape the legal landscape on immigration and executive action.

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