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Supreme Court ends legal clash over border wall spending

The brief order means the once-potentially epic case will leave little lasting mark in the law

Rep. Ralph Norman stands among piles of unused border fence while speaking with local ranchers and farmers during an April 2021 tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M.
Rep. Ralph Norman stands among piles of unused border fence while speaking with local ranchers and farmers during an April 2021 tour of the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court wiped out a lower court ruling Tuesday that had found the House had a right to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration for the use of funds to construct a barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The justices also ordered a lower court to declare that the case is now moot and the courts don’t need to decide any remaining substantive issues, since President Joe Biden halted spending on wall construction that President Donald Trump had ordered.

The Supreme Court otherwise didn’t address issues raised in the historic clash between the executive and legislative branches.

The one-paragraph order means the case, once potentially a dramatic separation-of-powers showdown over a president’s ability to spend funds without congressional approval, will leave little lasting mark in the law.

The House had asked the justices to preserve the lower court’s ruling that backed their right to sue, which it said was the first appellate decision between the political branches over the Appropriations Clause since the Constitution was ratified.

The case took years to twist and turn through the lower courts. And the House had pointed out that the ruling was “the product of an exceptional expenditure of judicial and party resources.”

The case started after a dispute between Trump and Congress in late 2018 about funding for border wall construction that caused the government to shut down for more than a month, until Trump relented.

Trump wanted $5 billion in a fiscal 2019 spending bill to build a wall, one of his main campaign promises. Congress appropriated only $1.375 billion for fencing. But after the shutdown, Trump announced plans to transfer up to $8.1 billion from other funds for the border wall construction.

The Democratic-led House argued the move violated the Appropriations Clause in a way that usurps Congress’ authority over spending — and a key part of the lawsuit was whether the House by itself could go to the courts to stop the spending.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in 2020 that the House had the right to sue, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi called at the time “a strong victory for the Constitution and the rule of law.”

This year, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to erase that ruling, arguing that it could put federal courts in the middle of an “infinite” number of spending disputes between a president and one chamber of Congress.

The House countered in a brief that future courts would be unlikely to read the D.C. Circuit opinion to apply to other situations because of the “remarkable circumstances — unique in our nation’s history,” that caused the legal fight in the first place.

Also, the House argued that the appellate court’s ruling did not address many of the other more substantive issues in the case, even as basic as whether the House could jump over other procedural hurdles.

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