Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance v. Bullock

Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance v. Bullock, 2016 MT 104 (May 10, 2016) (Cotter, J.; Baker, J., concurring) (7-0, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in holding that MIJA has standing to challenge LR 121; (2) whether the district court erred in concluding that LR 121 is preempted by federal law; and (3) whether the district court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to MIJA.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no, except for its holding that one section of the law was not preempted; and (3) yes.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part

Facts: During the 2011 legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 638, denying certain state-funded services to “illegal aliens,” and submitted the act to Montana voters as a legislative referendum. LR 121 was adopted by the voters and codified at § 1-1-411, MCA, effective January 1, 2013.

Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the rights of immigrants in Montana. Some of its members are Mexican citizens who entered the U.S. without being inspected by a customs or immigration official, but who have since obtained lawful permanent resident status. They fear LR 121’s definition of illegal alien includes them and that they will be deprived of state services even though the Department of Homeland Security considers them lawful immigrants.

MIJA filed a complaint in December 2012, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. MEA-MFT and an individual woman joined as plaintiffs. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ request to enjoin most of LR 121, but granted the request as to the definition of “illegal alien.”

The state moved to dismiss for lack of standing on the grounds that the law had not been enforced against anyone to date. The district court granted the motion as to MEA-MFT and the individual plaintiffs but denied it as to MIJA.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment – MIJA on the federal preemption claim, and the state on MIJA’s constitutional claims as well as the preemption claim.

Procedural Posture & Holding: After a hearing, the district court held that LR 121 was preempted in its entirety, with one exception, and granted MIJA’s motion for summary judgment for all but § 1-1-411(3), MCA. The district court denied MIJA’s motion for attorney’s fees, but vacated its decision after this Court’s decision in City of Helena v. Svee, and awarded MMIJA attorneys’ fees. The state appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms in part and reverses in part.

Reasoning: (1) Following the district court’s injunction, the state filed a stipulation stating it will not use an individual’s unlawful entry into the country in determining whether the individual is eligible for benefits. Based on that, it argued MIJA no longer had standing. The district court disagreed, and the Supreme Court affirms. A new attorney general would not be bound by the decision not to enforce the challenged definition, nor would the current attorney general be legally bound by his promise not to enforce. “The MIJA members who came to the United States unlawfully and settled in Montana are precisely the individuals against whom the law is intended to operate, and denying them standing to challenge LR 121 would effectively immunize the statute from constitutional review.” ¶ 25. MIJA’s claims are ripe, and its members have standing to sue in their own right. Therefore, MIJA has associational standing.

(2) Because the power to regulate immigration is exclusively a federal power, a state law that attempts to regulate immigration is field preempted. The federal government occupies the field of classifying non-citizens for various purposes. LR 121’s definition of “illegal alien” attempts to regulate immigration by creating an immigration status that does not exist under federal law, and therefore leaves it up to state officials to make a discretionary determination as to an individual’s immigration status. State laws that authorize state officials to perform a discretionary function regarding immigration status are preempted.

Additionally, LR 121 is conflict preempted. Under federal law, many MIJA members who submitted affidavits entered the country unlawfully but are not lawful permanent residents. Under federal law, they are eligible for state employment, but under LR 121’s expansive definition of “illegal alien,” they are not. Similarly, MIJA members who are lawful permanent residents are qualified under federal law to attend a Montana university, but under LR 121 they are not.

The district court held that the reporting requirement, codified at § 1-1-411(3), MCA, was not preempted because the federal government encourages reporting and notification. However, the mandatory reporting requirement relies on the same term, “illegal alien,” and therefore suffers from the same defect as the other sections. The Court holds that it cannot be severed from the rest of the statute, and holds that it too is preempted. “Because the entirety of § 1-1-411, MCA, is infected with a definition of ‘illegal alien’ that is unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause, the entire statute is preempted by federal law.”

(3) The Court affirms the district court’s holding that MIJA is not entitled to attorney fees under § 25-10-711(1)(b) because the state’s defense of LR 121 was not frivolous. However, it reverses the district court in its award of attorney’s fees under Svee. This case is more like Western Tradition Partnership than Svee.

Justice Baker’s Concurrence: Justice Baker believes the Court’s decision in Svee was incorrect, but notes that this case demonstrates that Svee was based on its unique facts. “Garden variety” declaratory judgment actions do not justify an award of attorney’s fees under  27-8-313, MCA.