Access to Justice

Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition v. Trump; State of California v. Trump

In Sierra Club v. Trump and State of California v. Trump, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that President Trump cannot lawfully divert funds that Congress has appropriated for other purposes for the construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Case Summary

In February 2019, following months of trying to secure funding from Congress to build a wall along the southern border, President Trump declared a “national emergency” and directed that funds Congress appropriated for other purposes be diverted to build the wall. A coalition of states, as well as two nonprofit organizations, the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, brought suits against the President and executive officials, arguing that this diversion of funds exceeds the President’s authority under the Constitution and federal laws. Since then, CAC has filed multiple amici curiae briefs on behalf of federal courts scholars in support of the plaintiffs’ ability to bring this challenge against President Trump’s unlawful diversion of funds.

Our briefs have addressed the central arguments being made by the Trump administration to escape judicial review: that the plaintiffs cannot bring this lawsuit because no statute authorizes them to sue, and that the plaintiffs are not within the “zone of interests” protected by the laws that the administration claims authorize its actions.

Our brief explains why the administration’s arguments are wrong. First, the federal courts’ power to order injunctive (“equitable”) relief has long included the power to order the government to stop unauthorized conduct that injures a plaintiff—regardless of whether a statute provides a cause of action authorizing that plaintiff to sue. As the Supreme Court has explained, this form of equitable review reflects a long history in our legal tradition, tracing back to England, of judicially reviewing the legality of executive action.

Second, our brief shows that when plaintiffs seek injunctive relief to stop unauthorized government conduct that is injuring them, no “zone of interests” test limits their ability to obtain that relief. As we explain, the zone-of-interests test applies only when a plaintiff relies on a statutorily conferred cause of action to vindicate rights that were created by legislation. But where, as here, plaintiffs do not rely on such statutes, because they are directly injured by unauthorized government conduct, there is no “zone of interests” test to apply.

The district court for the Northern District of California issued a permanent injunction ordering the Trump administration not to fund the border wall using money diverted from a Defense Department appropriations act. The district court’s opinion cited CAC’s amici brief on behalf of federal courts scholars in explaining why persons who are injured by unauthorized government conduct do not need a statutory cause of action to seek injunctive relief to halt that conduct.

In July 2020, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and upheld the injunction. Heavily echoing our brief, the Ninth Circuit explained that the plaintiff organizations can bring an equitable challenge against the unauthorized funding of the border wall in order to prevent the injuries that the wall’s construction will cause them, and that the zone-of-interests test does not apply to such a claim.

Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to lift a stay that it imposed on the district court’s injunction last year. CAC once again filed an amici curiae brief on behalf of federal courts scholars in support of the motion to lift the stay. The Supreme Court, however, denied the plaintiffs’ motion and left the stay in place, with four Justices dissenting.

Separately, the district court (again citing our brief) has also enjoined the administration from funding the border wall under a statute that authorizes “military construction projects.” That decision remains on appeal in the Ninth Circuit.

Case Timeline

  • May 2, 2019

    CAC files amici curiae brief in support of Plaintiffs’ motions for preliminary injunction

    N.D. Cal. Amici Curiae Brief
  • May 24, 2019

    The district court issues its decision on the preliminary injunction

  • June 11, 2019

    CAC files amici curiae brief in opposition to Defendants’ motion for a stay

    9th Cir. Amici Br.
  • July 3, 2019

    The Ninth Circuit denies the stay

  • July 26, 2019

    The Supreme Court grants a stay

  • August 22, 2019

    CAC files amici curiae brief supporting affirmance of the district court’s permanent injunction against using funds from the Department of Defense Appropriations Act

    9th Cir. Amici Br.
  • November 4, 2019

    CAC files amici curiae brief in opposition to the defendants’ motions for partial summary judgment in the district court on using military construction funds

    N.D. Cal. Amicus Br.
  • November 12, 2019

    The Ninth Circuit holds a hearing on the injunction against using funds from Department of Defense Appropriations Act

  • December 11, 2019

    The district court issues a permanent injunction against using military construction funds

  • February 20, 2020

    CAC files amici curiae brief supporting affirmance of the district court’s permanent injunction on using military construction funds

    9th Cir. Amici Br.
  • March 10, 2020

    The Ninth Circuit hears oral arguments

  • June 26, 2020

    The Ninth Circuit issues its decision

  • July 28, 2020

    CAC files amici curiae brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of federal courts scholars in support of motion to lift stay

    Sup. Ct. Amici Br.
  • July 31, 2020

    Supreme Court denies motion to lift stay

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