A federal judge has ruled that Philadelphia can proceed with its lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has threatened to withhold federal grant money over its sanctuary city policies.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Tuesday denied Sessions’ motion to dismiss the case, captioned City of Philadelphia v. Sessions. The lawsuit was aimed at preventing the attorney general from withdrawing a Justice Assistance Grant providing more than $1 million to the city annually.
Although Sessions has contended that the grant money should be withheld because the city is not in compliance with federal immigration law, the city government is arguing that Sessions violated the Administrative Procedure Act by imposing new conditions before awarding the money.
According to Baylson, the city had shown a strong enough case to proceed with its claims.
“The city continues to present an eminently plausible reading of this language, and the court therefore denies defendant Sessions’ motion to dismiss,” Baylson said.
Baylson’s ruling, contained in a 27-page opinion, comes about five months after he issued a sweeping 132-page opinion siding with the city regarding the interpretation of 8 U.S.C. Section 1373, which says municipalities can’t bar their officers and agents from sharing immigration information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Given Philadelphia’s unique approach to meshing the legitimate needs of the federal government to remove criminal aliens with the city’s promotion of health and safety, there is no conflict of any significance,” Baylson said in the opinion. “For all these reasons, the court finds Philadelphia can properly certify, as required by Section 1373, its substantial compliance with Byrne JAG conditions, and the attorney general will be enjoined from denying the city’s Byrne JAG grant for FY 2017.”
The issue of so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions, which have policies limiting what information local law enforcement officers can share with immigration officials, has gained national attention in recent years. The issue became more contentious last year after President Donald Trump signed an executive order promising to cut federal funding to such municipalities, including Philadelphia, and tensions have continued to grow, with Sessions filing a lawsuit last week against California seeking to block recently enacted state laws.
Philadelphia’s suit lodges six counts against Sessions, contending, among other things, that withholding the funds based on the proposed conditions would violate the separation of powers doctrine, that the conditions are arbitrary and capricious, and would violate the spending clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Baylson denied attempts to dismiss each claim, saying that, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the city has presented enough facts to proceed.
Hogan Lovells attorney Virginia Gibson is representing the Philadelphia city government in the case.
“The city is gratified by the court’s decision to deny the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss our lawsuit,” Mike Dunn, spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, said in an emailed statement. “This allows the case to move forward, as the city seeks to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from adding unlawful conditions to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program.”
A spokesman with the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.