What Is the Supremacy Clause? Jeff Sessions Is Using It to Sue California

Sessions' gripe is with sanctuary city policies.

Flickr / Gage Skidmore

So much for states’ rights. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is suing California for its commitment to establishing “sanctuary cities.” In a lawsuit alleging that sanctuary cities violate federal law, Sessions claims that the state’s immigration law enforcement policies violate the Supremacy Clause.

“California is using every power it has, powers it doesn’t have to frustrate federal law enforcement,” Sessions said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The Supremacy Clause, found in Article VI of the Constitution, states that, as a general rule, federal law supersedes state law. That is, if the two ever conflict, federal law should take precedence.

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, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

However, the second half of the clause establishes exceptions to the Supremacy Clause. If a state is passing laws that happen to conflict with federal law in service of a different motivation, like improving public safety, then they aren’t necessarily invalid. But Sessions is arguing that a suite of laws passed by California in 2017 were drafted with the express purpose of hindering the feds.

The laws which Sessions is suing to strike down are:

SB 54 — Prohibits local law enforcement officials from informing federal officials when detained immigrants will be released from custody and prohibits local officials from transferring immigrants to federal facilities without a warrant.

AB 103 — Requires California’s Attorney General to inspect any facility where immigrants are detained by federal law enforcement officers.

AB 450 — Prohibits employers from allowing federal agents into non-public spaces and seizing employee records without a warrant.

Together, these laws establish what many have referred to as “sanctuary city” policies. While they don’t literally shield immigrants from ICE agents, they extend due process protections to all immigrants, documented and undocumented.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argues that the laws aren’t designed to obstruct, but to promote public safety. “In #California, our state laws work in concert with federal law. What we won’t do is change from being focused on public safety. We’re in the business of public safety, not #deportation,” Becerra tweeted on Wednesday morning.

Among other concerns, Becerra and other lawmakers fear that providing unnecessary assistance to federal agents will dissuade undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes for fear of deportation.

With Wednesday’s lawsuit, which California Governor Jerry Brown called a “political stunt,” Sessions has planted himself firmly in the middle of another debate about jurisdiction.

The Attorney General is also embroiled in a battle over the future of marijuana, which is prohibited at the federal level but has been legalized in some form in over half of the states. In an ironic twist, Democrats have become the defenders of states’ rights while Sessions has morphed into an ardent, if opportunistic, federalist.

You can read the full lawsuit below:

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