That was quite a show that politicians staged in Sacramento last Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions swooped into town to tell an audience of police officials that he was suing the state to overturn three laws aimed at helping millions of undocumented immigrants avoid deportation.
The centerpiece is Senate Bill 54, which puts some limits on law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials. The others impose new requirements on employers who face federal demands for employment records and bar local governments from contracting with the feds for housing undocumented immigrants.
“The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you,” Sessions told the cops in his prepared remarks.
“A refusal to apprehend and deport those, especially the criminal element, effectively rejects all immigration law and creates an open borders system,” Sessions added. “There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land. I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.”
Minutes later, Gov. Jerry Brown and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra appeared before reporters at the Capitol to denounce the suit.
Brown characterized the Trump administration as being “full of liars,” called Sessions’ speech a “circus” and “pure red meat for the base.”
“This is basically going to war against the State of California,” Brown said, accusing Sessions of “initiating a reign of terror.”
The back-to-back events were something of a cosmic conspiracy that fostered political grandstanding by both sides.
While Sessions was certainly delivering political “red meat” to the Trump base, Brown and Becerra were feeding carnivorous Californians who dislike Trump and his immigration crackdown.
Although Brown won’t be facing voters again, Becerra – who was appointed by Brown – is running for a full term this year and has made resistance to the Trump administration on immigration and countless other issues his hallmark.
Rhetoric aside, it was inevitable that California’s efforts to shield undocumented immigrants from federal officers would be tested in court.
California claims that under the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the so-called states’ rights clause, immigrant protection laws are valid. It declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Sessions’ suit contends, however, that the state is running afoul of the Constitution’s “supremacy” clause, to wit:
“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The conflict between states’ rights and federal supremacy is certainly not a new one. It took a bloody civil war to settle the 19th century conflict over slavery. A century later, slavery’s residue, state racial segregation laws, sparked another conflict, often a bloody one, that took federal troops and judicial and congressional action to resolve.
More recently, when Arizona attempted to make its own laws to counter illegal immigration, it was slapped down by the courts.
Are California’s sanctuary laws merely the reverse image of what Arizona attempted? Sessions’ suit implies they are, while Brown and Becerra insist they aren’t, so they should be eager to have their day in court.
“This lawsuit is going to last a lot longer than the Trump administration,” Brown said. That may be true, since it’s inevitable that an ideologically divided U.S. Supreme Court will have the final word.