On 26 July 2019, in Trump v. Sierra Club, 588 U. S. (2019), the US Supreme Court stayed an injunction blocking President Trump’s allocation of funds for a border wall with Mexico. The decision was supported by Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas and Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts, with Justice Breyer concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration had “made a sufficient showing at this stage that the plaintiffs have no cause of action to obtain review of the Acting Secretary’s compliance with Section 8005.” The injunction was lifted on the grounds that the Trump Administration would suffer ‘irreparable harm’ if the injunction had been left in force. This was based on the fact that if the funds had not been released, the Trump Administration would not have been able to finalise contracts with building companies by 30 September 2019, meaning that the funds would have had to be “returned to the Treasury and the injunction [would] have operated, in effect, as a final judgment.” The injunction is stayed pending the appeal before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a potential appeal from that Court to the US Supreme Court, if pursued.
In his partly-concurring and partly dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer, the least liberal of the four liberals on the US Supreme Court, argued that the injunction should have been stayed in so far as to allow the Trump Administration to finalise the contracts but not to begin construction. According to Justice Breyer, this would have allowed the Trump Administration to use the funds before they expire on 30 September 2019, yet at the same time, it would have prevented the wall from being erected before the case was properly decided on the merits.
The original injunction was prompted by Proclamation 9844 declaring a state of emergency at the Southern border issued by President Trump under the National Emergencies Act 1976 on 15 February 2019. The National Emergencies Act 1976 contains a list of special 136 emergency powers which can be relied on once an emergency has been declared. Under Proclamation 9844, the Trump Administration relied on section 8005 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2019 allowing the Secretary of Defense to transfer funds for military purposes if the Secretary determines that the transfer is “for higher priority items, based on unforeseen military requirements” and “the item for which funds are requested has [not] been denied by the Congress.” Under Proclamation 9844, the Trump Administration moved $8 billion from the Department of Defense to the Department of Homeland Security to finance the construction of the wall at the US-Mexico border after Congress had refused to allocate more than $1.375 billion for that purpose (NY Times).
As soon as Proclamation 9844 was issued, the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition, two advocacy groups represented by the ACLU, sued claiming that Proclamation 9844 violated the Appropriation Clause of Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution which identifies Congress as the only body responsible for the allocation of funding. In May 2019, in Sierra Club v Trump, 19-cv-00892-HSG, the District Court for the Northern District of California imposed a preliminary injunction declaring that the redirection of the funds towards the construction of the wall violated the Appropriation Clause. Then, in June 2018, in a second decision, the same Court made the injunction permanent. The Trump Administration appealed against the injunction, but in a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declined to lift the injunction pending a full appeal. Now, that the US Supreme Court has stayed the injunction, the construction of the wall will proceed while the case is being considered by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on the merits.
However, the case of Sierra Club v Trump is not the only Court case against Proclamation 9844. On the announcement of Proclamation 9844, the House of Representatives, being co-responsible for the allocation of funding under the Appropriate Clause, sued in the District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to block the redirection of funds for the wall. On 3 June 2019, the Court ruled, in US House of Representatives v Mnuchin, 1:19-cv-00969, that the House of Representatives had no legal standing to sue the President and, therefore, it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. No decision on the merits was issued (The Washington Post).
Interestingly, the decision in US House of Representatives v Mnuchin, 1:19-cv-00969 can be contrasted with a recent case of US House of Representatives v. Burwell, 130 F. Supp. 3d 53, 81, where, in September 2015, the same District Court for the District of Columbia (although a difference Judge) held that the House of Representative (with a Republican majority) had a legal standing to sue the Obama Administration for unauthorised payments under a cost-sharing program under the ObamaCare. In fact, in its subsequent decision on the merits in May 2016, in US House of Representatives v. Burwell, 185 F. Supp. 3d 165, the Court ruled that those payments had in fact violated the Appropriate Clause. However, the ruling was stayed while the Obama Administration pursued an appeal before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In December 2017, with the 2016 presidential election intervening, the lawsuit was settled with the new Administration. Nevertheless, when it comes to the question of the House of Representatives’ legal standing to sue for unauthorised spending, the case produced a definite positive answer at the District Court level (HealthAffairs).