Judge tosses Paxton’s SB 4 suit against city
Austin, Travis County can’t violate law not in effect yet, jurist rules.
A federal judge in Austin has delivered the first defeat to the state’s controversial Senate Bill 4, the so-called sanctuary cities ban, with a ruling that tossed a lawsuit seeking to have the law declared constitutional before it
takes effect in the coming weeks. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed a lawsuit Texas Attor- ney General Ken Paxton had filed against the city of Austin and Travis County and ruled that Paxton’s suit had no standing because it was based on hypothetical violations of the law that have not happened.
“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,” Sparks’ ruling said Tuesday. “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.”
SB 4 created civil and criminal penalties for police and elected officials — including arrest or removal from office — if they block cooperation with federal requests to detain jail inmates suspected of living in the country illegally. The new law also allows authorities to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine police encounters, such as traffic stops.
Proponents of the law say it would keep criminals off the streets and prevent people living in the country illegally from evading immigration hearings that would lead to deportations.
Opponents say SB 4 will lead to racial profiling and break apart immigrant families over minor infractions.
Austin and Travis County became the epicenter of the battle over SB 4 and “sanctuary cities” after Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez instituted a policy that ignores many federal detention requests placed on local inmates suspected of illegal immigration.
Gov. Greg Abbott pulled $1.5 million in criminal justice grants from the county and made SB 4 one of his top legislative priorities, firing an opening salvo in a Legislature that has dealt many blows to local rule in Austin.
Sparks’ ruling doesn’t invalidate SB 4. However, it does pave the way for another lawsuit regarding SB 4 in San Antonio to take primacy.
Austin, Travis County and nearly every other major Texas city have sued the state, seeking to invalidate SB 4 in the San Antonio federal court.
Those cities are seeking to temporarily halt the implementation of SB 4 while the federal court decides whether SB 4 is constitutional. They argue the state law creates immigration law, which is a power only granted to the federal government.
San Antonio federal Judge Orlando Garcia is expected to rule on that suit in the coming days.
Paxton said in a news release Wednesday that he would continue defending SB 4 in San Antonio and in other courts if necessary.
“The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable,” Paxton said. “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.”
For many local leaders, Paxton’s suit felt personal. The ink from Abbott’s signature on SB 4 had hardly dried when Paxton filed the suit, naming all Austin City Council members and Mayor Steve Adler as defendants.
Council Member Greg Casar said the ruling was “a step in the right direction.”
“It has been obvious from the beginning that Ken Paxton’s lawsuit against my colleagues was frivolous and without standing, and to intimidate local officials advocating against Senate Bill 4,” Casar said.
The Travis County sheriff was later added as a defendant in the suit. When reached for comment, Hernandez told the American-Statesman she was “very, very pleased” with the ruling.
“The good part is it allows Judge Garcia to move forward on the constitutionality on SB 4 in San Antonio,” Hernandez said. “I think it is on the right path.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was “disappointed” by the ruling.