Appeals Court Upholds Block on ‘Public Charge’ Rule, Limits Scope of Injunction

August 4, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a block on a rule that makes it easier for the Trump administration to deny legal status to immigrants who receive public assistance, but limited the scope to three states.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a 110-page ruling affirmed a lower court’s ruling in October 2019 to grant preliminary injunctions to block the “public charge” immigration rule from being implemented. However, the appeals court scaled back the scope of the nationwide injunction to only three states in its jurisdiction—New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The Second Circuit’s ruling won’t have an immediate effect because of a Supreme Court decision in January that allowed the rule to go ahead pending a review by the top court.

The public charge rule, which was issued in 2019, provides clarification about what factors would be considered when determining whether someone is likely at any time in the future to become a public charge. A public charge refers to an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence through assistance such as food stamps or Medicaid.

The rule will consider a person a public charge if they receive at least one government benefit for more than 12 months in a three-year period.

The panel found that the rule was unlawful because it was issued contrary to a federal immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and was “arbitrary and capricious.” They found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) failed to provide a satisfactory justification for expanding the definition of “public charge” and expanding the list of benefits to be considered in a public charge determination.

The judges say the DHS did not provide any factual basis for its rationale for changing the rule.

“Of course, DHS is free to change its interpretation and we do not suggest it is under any obligation to consult with its sister agencies in so doing,” the judges wrote in their opinion (pdf).

“But what DHS may not do is rest its changed interpretation on unsupported speculation, particularly when its categorical assumptions run counter to the realities of the non-cash benefits at issue.”

The Justice Department had no comment in response to Tuesday’s ruling.

Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to temporarily put a hold on nationwide injunctions issued by the New York District Court until the appeal in the 2nd circuit, and, if necessary, the Supreme Court is resolved. This allowed the rule to take effect in February.

The rule was challenged by several state and local governments and immigration groups, leading to injunctions that prevented the rule from going into effect on Oct. 15, 2019. Two federal appeals courts—the 4th Circuit and the 9th Circuit—lifted similar injunctions in December 2019. But the 2nd Circuit has refused to set aside a pair of injunctions issued by the New York District Court, prompting the Trump administration to file an emergency request (pdf) to the top court earlier in January to lift those blocks.

Several conservative justices on the Supreme Court issued sharp criticism against the use of nationwide injunctions in their January ruling. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the real problem in the cases was the “increasingly common practice of trial courts ordering relief that transcends the cases before them.”

“Whether framed as injunctions of ‘nationwide,’ ‘universal,’ or ‘cosmic’ scope, these orders share the same basic flaw—they direct how the defendant must act toward persons who are not parties to the case,” Gorsuch wrote.

The Second Circuit acknowledged Gorsuch’s opinion and addressed the issue in their ruling. The panel said there was “no doubt” that the law allows district courts to enter nationwide injunctions, and can be an appropriate remedy in certain circumstances. But the court also expressed concern that nationwide injunctions could conflict with other court rulings when numerous challenges are filed against the same agency action.

“When confronted with such a volatile litigation landscape, we encourage district courts to consider crafting preliminary injunctions that anticipate the possibility of conflict with other courts and provide for such a contingency,” the judges wrote. “Such approaches could take the form of limiting language providing that the injunction would not supersede contrary rulings of other courts, an invitation to the parties to return and request modification as the situation changes, or the limitation of the injunction to the situation of particular plaintiffs or to similarly situated persons within the geographic jurisdiction of the court.”

This comes after the same New York District Court issued a second nationwide injunction last week blocking the rule from being implemented during the length of the national public health emergency, which was declared in response to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

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