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Justices decline to reach merits of conservative states’ attempt to revive public charge rule

The Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out an effort by Arizona and 12 other states with Republican attorneys general to defend a contentious Trump-era immigration policy known as the “public charge” rule after the Biden administration refused to do so. In a brief unsigned ruling, the justices dismissed the case as “improvidently granted” – an unusual procedural move indicating that the court concluded it was wrong to have taken up the dispute in the first place. The Biden administration stopped enforcing the public charge rule in March 2021, and the court’s dismissal on Wednesday dealt a blow to the conservative states’ attempts to revive the policy.

Chief Justice John Roberts penned a two-and-a-half-page opinion in which he suggested that procedural complications, such as whether the states had the right to sue, prevented the justices from reaching the merits of the states’ case.

The case, Arizona v. City and County of San Francisco, was the latest chapter in the battle over the 2019 rule, which expanded the definition of “public charge” – a term in immigration law for people who are ineligible for a green card if the government believes that they are likely to rely too heavily on certain forms of government aid, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Because the Biden administration decided to stop defending the rule, it dismissed a challenge to the rule that had been pending in the Supreme Court in 2021. It then rescinded the rule without seeking public comments on its decision to do so.

The states went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, seeking to intervene there to defend the rule in the hope of having it reinstated. But the court of appeals turned them down, prompting the states to appeal to the Supreme Court, which agreed last fall to weigh in.

It was not clear after the oral argument in February how the justices were likely to resolve the case. Some justices appeared troubled by the Biden administration’s conduct, but they did not necessarily agree on what options the states might have to defend the rule. Wednesday’s ruling did not add any clarity to that, as it tossed out the states’ appeal without any explanation from the court.

The only insight into some of the justices’ thinking came in Roberts’ concurring opinion, which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch. Describing the Biden administration’s decision to dismiss the appeals of lower-court decisions that had invalidated the rule and then to repeal the rule itself, Roberts explained that the government’s conduct “raise[s] a host of important questions” – most significantly, whether the government had followed proper procedures under administrative law.

But, Roberts continued, the case also raised a variety of other issues, such as whether the states have the kind of direct interest in the outcome that would allow them to intervene. Because these issues either prevent or make it much harder for the court to resolve the main question in the case, Roberts concluded, the court was right to dismiss the dispute. But he cautioned that the dismissal of the case “should not be taken as reflective of a view on any of the foregoing issues, or on the appropriate resolution of other litigation, pending or future, related to the 2019 Public Charge Rule, its repeal, or its replacement by a new rule.”

In February, the Biden administration formally proposed a replacement rule. The administration is reviewing public comments on that proposal.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices decline to reach merits of conservative states’ attempt to revive public charge rule, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 15, 2022, 1:01 PM),