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US appeals court rules against Tennessee refugee challenge

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A U.S. appeals court ruled against Tennessee lawmakers Wednesday in their lawsuit that claimed the federal refugee resettlement program improperly forces the state to spend money on additional services for the newcomers, including health care and education.

A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati ruled that Tennessee’s GOP-led General Assembly hasn’t claimed an injury that gives it standing in the case and hasn’t established it has the authority to sue on the state’s behalf.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2017. A district court dismissed it in March 2018, in part deeming it speculative for Tennessee to contend it might lose $7 billion annually in federal Medicaid money if it refuses to spend state money on refugee services through TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

At oral arguments in front of appellate judges in March, an outside attorney for Tennessee lawmakers argued that it amounts to commandeering for federal officials to be able to cut billions of dollars in Medicaid funding, should the state decide not to provide refugees health care.

In response, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney contended that even if the state decides to submit a proposal that wouldn’t cover the refugees, that would trigger administrative procedures and judicial review during which no money would be withheld.

“The General Assembly has not identified an injury that it has suffered, such as disruption of the legislative process, a usurpation of its authority, or nullification of anything it has done,” the opinion states.

The appellate decision also says it appears that Tennessee has named the state attorney general as the exclusive representative of its interests in federal court. Attorney General Herbert Slatery declined to file the lawsuit on behalf of legislators.

In 2016, then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, refused to sign a resolution that passed in the General Assembly demanding the lawsuit. It took effect without his signature.

The Thomas More Law Center has said it is working the case for free for the General Assembly.

“While I respect the decision that the court made, I’m certainly disappointed that we were not successful in asserting the ability of Tennessee taxpayers to determine how their tax dollars were spent,” said state House Majority Leader William Lamberth. “This case was always about the 10th Amendment and a state’s rights to determine how our citizens’ tax dollars are spent.”

Tennessee officially stopped participating in the refugee program in 2008.

But Catholic Charities of Tennessee administers a program under a law that says if a state withdraws, the federal government can pick a nonprofit to administer federal money for cash and medical assistance and social services to eligible refugees.

A U.S. Justice Department attorney said in court in March that 450 to 500 refugees were placed in Tennessee last year under the resettlement program, with a high mark of about 2,000 placed in 2016 and an annual average of less than 1,000.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief in the case to support immigrant rights’ groups, applauded the lawsuit’s dismissal.

“There is nothing more American than allowing people the opportunity to seek safety and to work and care for their families,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Today’s decision ensures that Tennessee will continue to uphold these important values.”

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