Advocates Ask Tennessee Lawmakers To Avoid Refugee Lawsuit As Ideological Test Case (WPLN, Douglas Corzine)

Posted 03/17/2016

Despite hearing Wednesday from vocal opponents to the joint resolution now making its way through the House, the Tennessee General Assembly is moving forward with its effort to sue the United States government over refugee resettlement.

The resolution's sponsors say they're reacting to a requirement that the state provide health benefits to refugees placed here by federal authorities. The sponsors are calling this coercion - a violation of 10th Amendment protections against federal intrusions.

At a hearing on Wednesday, they cited a 2012 United States Supreme Court case as precedent for what Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, calls a "friendly" lawsuit, which she says will clarify questions about federal power. The joint resolution, SJR 467, would call on Tennessee's Attorney General to take civil action against federal agencies on behalf of the state government. If the Attorney General declines, a conservative legal group called the Thomas More Law Center is willing to take the case pro bono. SJR 467 was originally sponsored by departing Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, among others.

After passing the House State Government Subcommittee with little opposition, it's now two steps away from final passage.

Still, Wednesday's hearing demonstrated that pro-refugee advocates won't give up without a fight. Holly Johnson administers the federal refugee resettlement program for the state of Tennessee. She voiced her opposition to the resolution during the hearing, saying a lawsuit could put thousands of refugees at risk.

"At worst, it ends refugee resettlement in the state, and then there's the loss of revenue, there's the loss of our reputation as a welcoming Southern state," she said. "At best, we become fodder for late-night talk show hosts." Johnson runs the resettlement program through her office at Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

She says this resolution would use "1,600 very vulnerable people" (the refugees arriving in Tennessee each year) as guinea pigs for an ideological test case. Legal Opposition Johnson isn't the only advocate speaking out against the resolution. Others include Nathan Ridley, who's a legal lobbyist and the president-elect of the Nashville Bar Association. Ridley says state legislators should be cautious about several aspects of the resolution.

According to Ridley, the resolution's directions to the Tennessee Attorney General may overstep limitations on the legislature's power to oversee that office, and it may propose the use of outside counsel in a manner that is inconsistent with state law. "Lastly, just the notion of of a friendly lawsuit -- this lawsuit will be styled 'The State of Tennessee v. The United States of America.' I don't see that as being a friendly sort of litigation," he said. That could mean a long, drawn out litigation process.

The refugee advocates opposing the lawsuit agreed that the litigation will likely be expensive and difficult. Furthermore, they likened the proposed legal action to a recent lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which requested an emergency injunction banning Syrian refugees from entering the state. Last month, a federal judge in Dallas dismissed the request.

It's unclear whether Tennessee will request a similarly restrictive injunction. The resolution suggests that the Attorney General might have some latitude in determining what to file. Still, community leaders expressed trepidation about similarities between the Texas case and what's being proposed in Tennessee.

In the face of this concentrated opposition, legislators continued to support the measure. Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, said Tennesseans are on edge about refugees.

"I think it is sensitive. I know in my own district it's very sensitive," Sanderson said. "People do ask about it, and I'm sure they ask other representatives about it."


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