NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Attorneys for Tennessee lawmakers and the U.S. government clashed Tuesday in a hearing over the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.
A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel in Cincinnati heard the oral arguments as attorneys for the Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly hope to upend a March 2018 ruling that tossed out their lawsuit.
John Bursch, an outside attorney for Tennessee lawmakers, argued that it’s 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.
“No state in their right mind would be able to walk away from 20 percent of their budget, simply because they don’t want to do what the government says or they feel that their state sovereignty has been violated,” Bursch said.
In response, U.S. Department of Justice attorney Samantha Lee Chaifetz 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.
“There is no gun to the head of Tennessee” with regards to the Medicaid funding, Chaifetz said.
The Thomas More Law Center said it is working the case for free for the Republican-led General Assembly.
The lawsuit, filed in western Tennessee in March 2017, argued the refugee program is forcing the state to spend money on additional services, including health care and education.
A March 2018 ruling deemed 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 Medicaid.
State 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.
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.
Chaifetz said 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.