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Judge tosses House lawsuit over border wall spending

Chamber cannot “conscript the Judiciary in a political turf war with the President,” ruling says

Barriers at the southern border. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)
Barriers at the southern border. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)

A federal judge in Washington on Monday threw out the House’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over funds to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying the courts were not the place to settle this dispute over congressional appropriations power.

The Democrat-led House filed the lawsuit challenging parts of the administration plan to spend up to $8.1 billion for construction of southern border barriers, arguing that Congress had turned aside President Donald Trump’s request for $5 billion and instead appropriated $1.375 billion.

The House argued that the spending would violate the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution and usurp Congress’ authority, while the Justice Department called it a case about whether the administration is not appropriately executing a statute.

U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden didn’t get that far. He said the Trump administration correctly argued that the Constitution does not give the House the right to “conscript the Judiciary in a political turf war with the President over the implementation of legislation.”

Judicial independence requires that courts take no part in resolving political fights between other branches, McFadden wrote in a 24-page ruling that denied the House request for a preliminary injunction to stop the administration plan to move money for the barrier construction under other laws.

“And while the Constitution bestows upon Members of the House many powers, it does not grant them standing to hale the Executive Branch into court claiming a dilution of Congress’s legislative authority,” McFadden wrote.

His ruling called it a “close question,” but said there was a lack of prior decisions on the House’s right to sue the executive branch and the court “cannot assume jurisdiction to proceed to the merits.”

McFadden concluded that the House “retains the institutional tools necessary to remedy any harm caused to this power by the Administration’s actions.”

To that point, the judge pointed to congressional power to override a president’s veto of a resolution voiding the National Emergency Declaration, amend appropriations laws to expressly restrict the transfer or spending of funds for a border wall and hold hearings on the president’s spending decisions.

The House case is one of several challenging the administration plan, but it highlights the hurdles facing lawmakers who want to stop the actions through the courts. During a hearing on the injunction request last month, McFadden expressed skepticism about whether the federal courts should jump into the middle of an “ugly dispute between the political branches.”

The Justice Department had argued that the Constitution doesn’t hint at litigation between the branches because it gave them other ways to resolve disputes.

Congress gave the administration the authority to transfer money in two laws last fall — the fiscal 2019 defense authorization and Defense spending bills — and lawmakers could have restricted that authority then if they wanted, a DOJ lawyer argued.

A Justice Department spokesman said Monday that the judge had “rightly ruled that the House of Representatives cannot ask the judiciary to take its side in political disputes and cannot use federal courts to accomplish through litigation what it cannot achieve using the tools the Constitution gives to Congress.”

A federal judge in California temporarily blocked portions of the administration spending plan for the border barrier.

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