Access to Justice

Sierra Club v. Trump

Sierra Club v. Trump was a challenge to the Trump Administration’s diversion of funds that Congress appropriated for other purposes in order to construct 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 exceeded the President’s authority under the Constitution and federal laws. CAC 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 addressed the central arguments being made by the Trump administration to escape judicial review: that the plaintiffs could not bring this lawsuit because no statute authorized them to sue, and that the plaintiffs were not within the “zone of interests” protected by the laws that the administration violated.

Our brief explained why the administration’s arguments were 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 lawfulness of executive action.

Second, our brief showed 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 explained, 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 halting 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 could bring an equitable challenge against the unauthorized funding of the border wall in order to prevent the injuries that the wall’s construction would cause them, and that the zone-of-interests test did not apply to such a claim.

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

In October 2020, the Supreme Court granted review, and in January 2021 CAC again filed an amici curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs on behalf of federal courts scholars. The case was scheduled for argument in February 2021 but was removed from the Court’s argument calendar after the new Biden administration changed its policy on border wall funding, making the dispute moot. Later that year, at the request of the Biden administration, the Supreme Court vacated the lower court judgments and remanded the cases.

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 a 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.
  • 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.
  • June 26, 2020

    The Ninth Circuit affirms the district court’s first permanent injunction

  • 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

  • October 9, 2020

    The Ninth Circuit affirms the district court’s second permanent injunction

  • October 19, 2020

    The Supreme Court grants certiorari

  • January 19, 2021

    CAC files amici curiae brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of federal courts scholars

    Sup. Ct. Amici Br.
  • February 3, 2021

    The Supreme Court grants the government’s motion to hold further briefing in abeyance and remove the case from its oral argument calendar

  • July 2, 2021

    The Supreme Court vacates the Ninth Circuit’s first judgment and remands

  • October 4, 2021

    The Supreme Court vacates the Ninth Circuit’s second judgment and remands

More from Access to Justice

Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Reed v. Goertz

In Reed v. Goertz, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider when the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim challenging the adequacy of state procedures for seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence...
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga

In FBI v. Fazaga, the Supreme Court is considering whether allegations of unlawful government surveillance may be adjudicated using procedures in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act instead of being dismissed as a result of the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Roe v. United States

In Roe v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is considering whether an employee of the federal judiciary can sue under the Fifth Amendment for sex discrimination experienced in the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

J.W. v. Paley

In J.W. v. Paley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering whether public school officials who use excessive physical force against students may be held accountable for violating the Fourth Amendment.
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Frasier v. Evans

In Frasier v. Evans, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether police officers who knowingly violated a person’s First Amendment right to film them making an arrest are entitled to qualified immunity.
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Gonzalez v. Trevino

In Gonzalez v. Trevino, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering what threshold requirements individuals must satisfy to bring First Amendment claims against a state or local official for arresting them...