March 20, 2020
ANN ARBOR, MI – In what could have far reaching implications for all states seeking to withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program, the Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”) collaborating with attorney John Bursch, filed a certiorari petition Monday, March 16 in the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition asks the Court to hold that the Tennessee General Assembly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the federal government’s forced state funding of the federal refugee resettlement program.
The Thomas More Law Center (“TMLC”) is a national nonprofit public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Both TMLC and Mr. Bursch are representing Tennessee without charge.
John Bursch, a former Michigan state solicitor general, nationally prominent appellate lawyer and past chair of the American Bar Association’s Council of Appellate Lawyers, authored the petition for certiorari.
The petition argues that the issues presented in the Tennessee case cut to the core of the Constitution’s protection of states against overreach by the federal government. The Constitution does not give Congress the authority to appropriate state funds, contrary to the wishes of the state, to fund a federal program.
According to the petition: “If a state legislature cannot vindicate its rights in court when the federal government picks the state’s pocket and threatens the state if it dare stop providing funds, then federalism is a dead letter.”
The petition seeks to overturn a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision which ruled that the General Assembly does not have institutional standing to challenge the constitutionality of the resettlement program. The cert petition does not challenge the federal government’s right to resettle refugees in Tennessee. What it objects to is forcing Tennessee taxpayers to pay the costs of the resettlement.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of TMLC, noted: “From the beginning, opposition to the federal refugee resettlement program has been about protecting Tennessee’s state sovereignty from impermissible federal interference. The federal government cannot simply commandeer state tax dollars to fund a purely federal program to extend benefits to noncitizens.”
Tennessee initially agreed to participate in the federal resettlement program because the federal government promised to reimburse 100 percent of the cost. In fact, Congress crafted the 1980 Refugee Act specifically intending that states not be taxed for programs they did not initiate and for which they were not responsible. As is often the case, however, the federal government began shrinking its financial support to the states and by 1991 eliminated it entirely. Due to the mounting costs the federal government was not covering as promised, Tennessee withdrew from the program effective June 30, 2008. But that didn’t stop the federal financial burden on Tennessee taxpayers. The federal government simply designated Catholic Charities of Tennessee, a non-governmental private organization, to continue the program with state dollars.
Between 2007 and the end of 2019, resettlement agencies pumped more than 15,000 refugees into Tennessee cities and towns. They came from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burma, Central African Republic, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan 3 and many other countries. They often arrive from United Nations camps in poor health, with no job skills or English-language abilities.
The resulting cost to state taxpayers amounted to tens of millions of dollars. In 2015 alone, the refugee-related Medicaid costs paid by Tennessee tax dollars topped $30 million.
Instead of resolving the merits of Tennessee’s claim, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sidestepped the pivotal constitutional issue concerning federalism by ruling that the Tennessee General Assembly lacked standing to bring its lawsuit.
The petition filed on March 16, 2020, argues that this was in error:
“The General Assembly is an institutional plaintiff asserting an institutional injury; the federal government has co-opted the General Assembly’s appropriation power and impaired its obligation to enact a balanced state budget. That is because the federal government can siphon state funds—to help pay for a federal program from which Tennessee has withdrawn.”
TMLC originally filed the federal lawsuit in March 2017 on behalf of the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee General Assembly, and state legislators Terri Lynn Weaver and John Stevens challenging the commandeering of millions in state taxpayer dollars for a purely federal program.
A U.S. district court judge dismissed the case on the federal government’s motion. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal on the sole grounds that the General Assembly lacked standing. It never reached the merits of the case.
The Supreme Court now has a chance to shed light on the proper role of the states relative to the federal government—which is the bedrock constitutional principle of federalism.
The petition states: “The (Tennessee) General Assembly does not object to the federal resettlement program. It does not even object to the federal government resettling 4 refugees in Tennessee. The General Assembly does object to the federal government reaching its hand into Tennessee’s pocket to pay for the cost of such a program, particularly when the enabling legislation was enacted with the promise to reimburse states for all expenses incurred in this program.”
The federal government mandates that states provide Medicaid to otherwise eligible refugees, or face termination of federal benefits.
Accordingly, the federal government forces Tennessee to continue funding the refugee program by threatening to pull $7 billion in federal Medicaid funding, which represents 20 percent of the state’s total budget.
The argument in favor of the General Assembly’s standing is bolstered by the fact that both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in 2016 in favor of filing a civil lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal refugee resettlement program. The State Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 467, by a vote of 27-5 while the House voted 69-25 to pass the same resolution.
And without any waiting period they can automatically apply for all welfare programs provided by the State of Tennessee.