Sanctuary Cities: A Lucky Gamble?

On Monday, May 14th, 2018 the Supreme Court issued a ruling on Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association. In a 7-2 decision, the high court formally struck down the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act or (PASPA), effectively making sports gambling legal nationwide [1]. This not only counts as a win for the state of New Jersey but this also potentially provides the opportunity for all states to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in additional revenue. Former Governor Chris Christie began petitioning the high court to legalize sports wagers in an effort to improve the dismal financial health of the state with the case Christie v. NCAA. However, he has since left the governor’s mansion and the case has been combined with NJ Thoroughbred Horsemen v. NCAA. This Supreme Court decision is one of the more underrated on this year’s blockbuster docket of issues, but it may have far-reaching implications on the tumultuous relationship between federal and state governments. A key area of contention is the idea of sanctuary cities; this ruling may very well make an executive crackdown on such places null and void in the coming months.

Phil Murphy representing the state of New Jersey and the petitioner argued that the government was ‘commandeering’ [2], or taking control of, state law and in effect violating Guarantee Clause of Article 4 in the Constitution in addition to the Tenth Amendment. The NCAA, the respondent in the case, asserted that the state was attempting to preempt federal mandates in order to express violation of the Supremacy Clause [3]. In the continuing debate on sanctuary cities, we encounter the same dilemma, states’ rights v. federal authority. Discerning what powers are exclusively reserved for the states and the federal government has led to perpetual conflict and legal uproar, but now the debate might be coming to a close. President Trump publicly admonished the state of California for establishing “sanctuary cities” or safe zones for illegal immigrants. Yet, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has consistently held that states’ rights allow California to prosecute immigration violations as they see fit; whereas the executive branch believes that immigration law is a matter of national security no matter the location, and it’s the federal government’s responsibility to regulate. Recently, California has enacted a legislation which makes illegal immigration virtually immune to law enforcement protocols creating a deep and very public animus within the executive branch. It’s important to allow the states to have a certain amount of leeway when upholding federalist principles within the Constitution, but it’s also equally important that the federal government retain authority to enforce federal statutes to maintain legal objectivity.

Last year Governor Brown signed the “sanctuary state” law, SB 54 [4], which legalizes statewide non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities. This is an unprecedented law the Trump administration has vehemently objected to and is actively battling in court. Many California counties, including Orange, San Diego, and Riverside have openly rejected the state protections for illegal immigrants while passing their own legislation countering state law[5]. In Murphy v. NCAA, the Supreme Court clearly outlines that a federal statute which forces a state to make a decision on matters not expressly regulated by the Constitution that goes against the consent of the governed violates anti-commandeering law; a stunning new precedent which Becerra can undoubtedly add to his arsenal for use in litigation against the president. Opinions on the issue are divided evenly along party lines:

States’ rights supporters believe:
Illegal immigrants should be protected from deportation
The federal government has no grounds for action
Deportation would hurt California economy
Illegal immigrants are rightful U.S. citizens

Federal authority supporters assert:
Illegal immigrants are criminals
SB 54 is illegal
Deportations are necessary for national security
Illegal immigrants harm U.S. workers

Given California’s all blue majority government, a repeal of the bill seems unlikely. In order to halt such measures, Trump and company would have to prevail in court proceedings, which seem equally as unlikely following the Murphy v. NCAA decision. Trump would have to file a suit that asserts the importance of national security and the federal government’s right to dictate immigration regulations in order to succeed. Another alternative would be to have Congress produce legislation banning states from shielding certain forms of federal crimes from federal law enforcement officials. The first option would be long and complicated with no guarantee of success, but a clear judicial victory would solidify such precedent long after the Trump administration. The legislation would be faster and more definitive if conservatives wanted to enact quicker changes while still having the strength to do so. Albeit a quick solution, it may not withstand the test of time if the Republicans lose a chamber or Trump loses reelection.

The ideal resolution would be a combination of sorts. California does have the right to some legal autonomy under the 10th Amendment, which reserves the powers not delegated by the United States Constitution to the respective states, however, we cannot afford to reduce the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security to zero when the political situation calls for it. In order to assure that the federal government can retain exclusive authority over immigration law enforcement, the President should focus his legal suits on SB 54 and its current flaws while not seeking vengeance on cities that choose to comply with it. Next, Congress should move swiftly to enact legislation that removes the power of local authorities to refuse cooperation with federal law enforcement, especially when pertaining to the matter of national security. Though these seem like sensible solutions, there will be no shortage of future litigation over states’ rights v. federal authority; the extreme polarization of modern policy will beget perennial challenges for the ultimate right to rule. Trump had high hopes that appointing a conservative like Gorsuch to the Supreme Court would guarantee him favorable party line rulings, and yet in a rather ironic fashion, a rather innocuous case on sports betting may upend one of his biggest campaign missions. Maybe the former casino owner rolled a pair of snake eyes and will end up going home empty-handed.

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“Supreme Court lets states legalize sports gambling”, CNN, accessed May 21, 2018.

“Commandeering”, Wikipedia, accessed May 21, 2018.

“Supremacy Clause”, Wikipedia, accessed May 21, 2018.

“Senate Bill No. 54”, California Legislative Information, accessed May 21, 2018.

“California cities are rebelling against state sanctuary law, but how far can they go?”, The Mercury News, accessed May 21, 2018.



David Williams is a Los Angeles native who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from University of California, Santa Cruz. He has been interested in politics since his early childhood. During his undergraduate studies, he was a chief campaign intern for the Santa Cruz City School Board. He has undertaken independent studies in issues such as homelessness and university-level crime (bullying, etc.). His key areas of interest are: Higher Education, domestic legal policy, and Middle Class advocacy. He is a firm believer in a proper people representation and governmental accountability, and aspires to run for public office one day. He believes objectivity is paramount in productive political dialogues, and he hopes to bring that as a Policy Corner Writer for PVNN Inc.

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