Democrats' Wall Funding Lawsuit Runs Into a Skeptical U.S. Judge

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. House of Representatives attempt to block President Donald Trump from spending about $6.1 billion on a southern border wall ran into what could be a major obstacle of its own Thursday -- a skeptical federal judge.

The Democrat-led chamber asked U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington to bar the administration from reallocating the money from other Defense Department projects in the wake of Congress’s outright refusal to give the president all the funding he sought for the project.

But the judge -- a 2017 Trump nominee -- had reservations, opining at the outset about an apparent lack of legal precedent and whether courts are the right forum for resolving disputes between the executive and legislative branches. The so-called legal standing question "strikes me as a significant issue in this case," McFadden said.

McFadden asked House lawyer Douglas Letter whether his clients had exhausted all other avenues for resolving its dispute with the Trump administration. It had, the House attorney responded, it said no to the president.

The standoff over the funding, which began in December, resulted in a record 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government, after which both houses of Congress appropriated just $1.4 billion for Trump’s long-sought barrier. Trump signed the legislation, immediately declared a national emergency and said he’d tap other sources to get the rest of the money, raising the ire of Democrats.

"We cannot have the president appropriating money," House lawyer Douglas Letter told McFadden during the nearly three-hour hearing Thursday. That power, he said, is reserved to Congress under the Constitution and goes "to the very heart," of its system of checks and balances.

One of the few comparable cases was decided in 2016 by another Washington federal judge, who ruled the Obama administration couldn’t spend money on an Obamacare subsidy program because of it lacked a specific Congressional appropriation. Judge Rosemary Collyer’s ruling -- which made winners out of House Republicans and losers of a Democratic administration -- isn’t legally binding because she and McFadden operate at the same level of the court system.

Defending the administration’s plan for the second time in a week was Justice Department lawyer James Burnham, who told McFadden the Constitution made no provision for one branch of the federal government to sue another in a fight refereed by the third. Its framers would have found that notion "ridiculous," he said.

Burnham asked the judge to rule that the House can’t sue the executive branch. "Congress has plenty of tools to deal with the problem," he said. He also argued the administration was spending money that had already been allocated, even if originally intended for other purposes.

Letter countered later that "both branches do expect the courts to tell them what the Constitution means."

In an Oakland, California, federal court last week, Burnham fended off parallel challenges to the Trump wall-funding gambit brought by 20 state attorneys general and the Sierra Club. There, Judge Haywood Gilliam hinted that while he supports the project’s opponents, he’s reluctant to issue a broad injunction barring the U.S. from building barriers anywhere along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Letter appeared in that case too, briefing Gilliam on the lawmakers’ position.

McFadden didn’t rule on the House’s request for a preliminary injunction, merely telling the two sides he’d take their arguments under consideration.

The lawmakers’ case is House of Representatives v. Mnuchin, 19-cv-969, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington). The Oakland cases are Sierra Club v. Trump, 19-cv-892, U.S District Court, Northern District of California and California v. Trump, 3:19-cv-00872, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California.

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