Petitioning U.S. Supreme Court, State Continues Challenge of Refugee Resettlement


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As a global pandemic spreads through the country and Tennessee towns and cities, the state of Tennessee looks to rekindle a lawsuit challenging refugee resettlement in the state by taking it to the Supreme Court on appeal.

On behalf of the state, attorneys with the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court last week, asking the court to review the state’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal refugee program in Tennessee.

The lawsuit was originally filed in March 2017 against the United States Department of State on the grounds that refugee settlement in Tennessee violates the U.S. Constitution by requiring the state to pay for a program it did not consent to.

The lawsuit alleged that though Tennessee had withdrawn from the federal Refugee Resettlement Program, the federal government forced Tennessee to continue funding the program by “threatening the state with the loss of federal Medicaid funding.” The state said it had to “expend a substantial amount of state taxpayer money” to fund the program.

The lawsuit was dismissed in March 2018 by a federal judge who ruled there was a lack of standing by the legislature to sue on its own behalf and that the state failed to show that refugee resettlement in Tennessee violates the Constitution.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in August, also stating that the General Assembly had not established its standing.

In September, attorneys with TMLC filed a petition asking the appellate court to rehear the case, on the grounds that the court’s decision was “painfully at odds” with Supreme Court precedent. The court denied that request.

Now, attorneys representing the state are asking that the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the Tennessee General Assembly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the “federal government’s force state funding of the federal resettlement program.”

“If the state legislature cannot vindicate its rights in court when the federal government picks the state’s pocket and threatens the state if it dares stop providing funds, then federalism is a dead letter,” the petition reads in part.

Specifically, the petition is asking that the court overturn the Sixth Court of Appeals ruling that the General Assembly has no standing to challenge the constitutionality of the resettlement program. The petition cites this ruling as an error.

“The General Assembly is an institutional plaintiff asserting an institutional injury; the federal government had co-opted the General Assembly’s appropriation power and impaired its obligation to enact a balanced state budget,” the petition reads. “This is because the federal government can siphon funds to help pay for a federal program from which Tennessee has withdrawn.”

Judith Clerjeune, policy and legislative affairs manager for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the move is a divisive, untimely one.

“Instead of focusing on solutions to protect Tennesseans during this time of crisis, our legislature continues to try and divide us,” Clerjeune said. “This lawsuit which has already been dismissed multiple times, has always sought to put communities against each other by scapegoating refugees, and its baseless claims are even more apparent now.

"By continuing their xenophobic crusade against he refugee resettlement program in the midst of a growing pandemic, these lawmaker are failing to meet the moment and are putting Tennesseans in jeopardy.”

Clerjeune said now more than ever, it’s important to “make sure that the most vulnerable are protected.”

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