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Attorneys argue over proper venue for sanctuary city lawsuit

For the second time this week, the Texas attorney general's office sparred in federal court with opponents of the state's new immigration-enforcement law, Senate Bill 4. Both sides got an earful from federal Judge Sam Sparks.

Protesters opposed to Senate Bill 4, known as the "sanctuary cities" law, turn out in force for the last day of the legislative session on May 29, 2017.

A federal judge on Thursday criticized the politics surrounding Texas’ new immigration-enforcement law and hinted that he’d be unable to take the case over from his colleague in Bexar County.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks told attorneys for the state of Texas that he had a docket twice as busy as San Antonio-based Orlando Garcia after he was asked by the state to declare Austin the appropriate venue for what’s gearing up to be a lengthy court battle over Senate Bill 4.

The law bans “sanctuary cities,” the common term for local governments that do not enforce federal immigration laws. It will take effect Sept. 1 unless a court intervenes.

The attorney general’s office sued Travis County and Austin officials shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill last month, seeking a ruling that the bill is constitutional.

But opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution and filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton in San Antonio, trying to prevent the law from taking effect. 

The state wants that case moved to Austin, arguing it's the proper venue because it's where the governor and attorney general live.

The law allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration "detainers" — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation.

“San Antonio has a track record of evidence that Judge Garcia can take into consideration,” Sparks said, referring to a seven-hour hearing on Monday in San Antonio where attorneys for both sides argued over the legality of allowing state governments to enforce federal immigration laws. He added that he has a trial scheduled in August that could likely spill into September.

Thursday’s hearing was a dramatic shift from Monday’s display, where Garcia sat largely silent and appeared to take every motion, argument and counter-argument into consideration. Sparks instead often interrupted the attorneys and repeated what he said should be simple questions to answer when the attorneys strayed off topic. He also hinted that he believed parties that joined the lawsuit against the state did so for political purposes.

“The city of Austin just got in because it's political and they get a lot of advertisement” in the press, he said.

Later, when Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she didn’t want to get into the politics of the issue, Sparks quipped: “Spare me.”

Sparks later invited both sides to sit and observe his courtroom on a day when he takes up immigration cases so they could observe the side of the issue that 99 percent of the public doesn’t see.

The judge also cast doubt on whether any court would be able to declare a law constitutional when it hasn’t gone into effect yet.

“I don’t have the authority to forecast the future, and you have a statute that doesn’t come into effect until September,” he told David Hacker, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office.

Sparks didn’t give a timeline on when he’d rule on the motion to move the case to Austin.

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