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Supreme Court ends challenge over ‘public charge’ rule

More than a dozen Republican-led states sought to join a lawsuit and defend the Trump-era immigration policy

The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington in 2021.
The Supreme Court building is seen at sunset in Washington in 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a Republican attempt to revive and defend a Trump-era immigration rule that made it harder for low-income immigrants to qualify for green cards.

More than a dozen Republican-led states in the case sought to join a lawsuit and defend the so-called “public charge” rule, since the Biden administration had declined to do so. But a federal appeals court had blocked the states from joining the lawsuit.

The high court agreed to decide that procedural issue, not the merits of the immigration rule. The justices heard oral argument in February.

But the court on Wednesday dismissed the case as improvidently granted, which lets the federal appeals court decision stand.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in a concurrence with the court’s decision not to decide the case, wrote that it raised “a great many issues” beyond the original question, including mootness and the limits of administrative law.

“It has become clear that this mare’s nest could stand in the way of our reaching the question presented on which we granted certiorari, or at the very least, complicate our resolution of that question,” Roberts wrote.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the Roberts concurrence.

Roberts added that this decision “should not be taken as reflective of a view on any of the foregoing issues, or on the appropriate resolution of other litigation, pending or future” related to the public charge rule.

Representatives for the Arizona attorney general’s office, which led the state coalition, and for the Justice Department didn’t immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.

The immigration rule, finalized in 2019 and rescinded last year by the Biden administration, allowed immigration officers to deny green cards to immigrants found likely to need public benefits in the future, based on expanded criteria.

Officers would make those determinations by evaluating applicants’ past usage of certain benefits programs, as well as their health, education level and other factors. Critics of the rule argued it discouraged immigrants from using needed social services for fear of immigration repercussions.

A number of federal judges struck down the rule during the prior administration, including one judge who rebuked the policy as “repugnant to the American Dream.”

Nonetheless, the high court allowed the prior administration to enforce the rule while those cases continued on appeal.

After President Joe Biden took office, his administration declined to defend the immigration rule in court and voluntarily dismissed those appeals — and rescinded the rule through court settlements.

Arizona, Texas and other states then asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit if they could join the case to defend the rule instead. They claimed the administration’s legal maneuvering had allowed it to wipe out the immigration policy while skirting administrative requirements.

A divided panel for the appeals court rejected the states’ request in April 2021, prompting a colorful dissent from Judge Lawrence VanDyke, a Trump appointee. The judge slammed the Biden administration’s actions to revoke the policy through court settlements, rather than through proper administrative procedures, as “quite extraordinary.”

The Biden administration’s maneuvering ensured “not only that the rule was gone faster than toilet paper in a pandemic, but that it could effectively never, ever be resurrected, even by a future administration,” VanDyke wrote.

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