The legal battle against Senate Bill 4—the “sanctuary cities” bill—took another step Thursday as attorneys for Austin and Travis County faced off against representatives from the state of Texas over court jurisdiction and whether the state’s preemptive lawsuit had any legal standing.

Following Monday’s all-day hearing in San Antonio that drew hundreds of people protesting against SB4, emotional testimonies and submitted evidence, Thursday’s hearing, held inside Austin’s United States Courthouse in front of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, drew less fanfare, involved only attorneys and lasted little over an hour.

SB4—signed into law on May 7, effective Sept. 1—is a controversial immigration law that enables law enforcement officials to inquire about the immigration status of any individual and threatens to punish cities and government officials who fail to comply with the law.

The lawsuit heard Monday was filed by a group of Texas cities against the state, challenging the constitutionality of SB4 in an effort to kill the legislation. The lawsuit heard Thursday was filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against Travis County and the city of Austin and sought a court ruling in defense of the bill’s constitutionality in an effort to lock the law in and preempt any legal challenges.

A battle of firsts and claims of injury

The state argued that because it was the first to file a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of the bill—Paxton filed May 8, the cities filed June 1—it should be first-come-first-serve: the cases in Austin and San Antonio should be consolidated and brought to court where the original lawsuit was filed—in the state capital.
“We are endorsing policy that is contrary to [Senate Bill 4] because that law is wrong and it is not just.”  

— Austin Mayor Steve Adler, June 19 press conference

Attorneys representing Austin and Travis County—who received support from San Antonio, El Paso and El Cenizo—argued the case in Austin should be dropped because the law goes into effect Sept. 1, and the state could not prove any injury or damage, which is a necessity when filing a lawsuit. The only injury that could be proven, according to local attorneys, is that local officials may not follow the law in September. However, if that were to occur, the AG's office argued the bill provides “satisfactory remedy,” or the ability of state government to remove local elected officials from office who endorse policies contrary to SB4.

On the other hand, the cities said they have the right to file a lawsuit prior to the bill’s effective date because their argument, being heard in San Antonio, seeks to prove how the bill will cause damage and injury to the community. While they argue the statute provides the state with a remedy, the cities’ only available remedy is sought through the court’s decision to rule against the legislation before harm is done.

Saying no to 'Big Brother' 

Renea Hicks, representing the city of El Cenizo, said no one insisted they will not follow the law once it goes into effect, killing the state’s legal basis for its lawsuit. However, following the bill’s passage in May, local officials called for a “summer of resistance” against the legislation. Earlier this month, Austin Mayor Steve Adler explicitly encouraged resistance to the bill.

“We are endorsing policy that is contrary to [Senate Bill 4] because that law is wrong and it is not just,” Adler said during a June 19 press conference to announce the city’s filing for a preliminary injunction against the bill. Adler also called the state’s ability to remove deviant local officials from office “unconstitutional.”

Judge Sparks provided no timeline on the decision. If he rules that the state’s case is valid and he has jurisdiction, Hicks said he and U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio will need to decide which of them will hear the case.