Federal appeals court dismisses Tennessee refugee resettlement challenge
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Federal appeals court dismisses Tennessee refugee resettlement challenge

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Wednesday dismissed Tennessee’s suit against the federal government over financing refugee resettlement within the state.

Tennessee contended that the federal government should foot the bill on all costs associated with refugee resettlement. In passing these expenses on to the states, Tennessee argued, the federal government violates both the Refugee Act of 1980 and the Tenth amendment to the US Constitution, which reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution to the states.

After Tennessee withdrew from the federal Refugee Resettlement Program in 2008, the federal government delegated refugee resettlement efforts to Catholic Charities of Tennessee (CCT). Refugees resettled by CCT in Tennessee who meet the eligibility criteria are able to enroll in Tennessee’s Medicaid program “TennCare,” and the state’s complaint alleges that it spent over $31 million dollars in 2015 “to support the federal refugee resettlement program through TennCare.” As it must enroll eligible refugees in TennCare or forfeit its Medicaid funding, Tennessee claimed that the state “is forced to expend substantial amounts of state taxpayer money to fund the resettlement program” despite its withdrawal and that such coercion is constitutionally impermissible.

The case was initiated in 2016 when Tennessee’s General Assembly voted to instruct the state’s attorney general to pursue an injunction preventing the federal government from resettling refugees in Tennessee until it covers all costs of resettlement. The attorney general declined, and the state hired the Thomas More Law Center to file the case on its behalf. The case was dismissed in March 2018 by a judge for the US District Court for the Western District of Tennessee for lack of standing.

Tennessee then appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the District Court’s dismissal and likewise found that the Tennessee’s General Assembly had not alleged an injury that gave it standing. The court found that in order for a state legislature to bring a case on its behalf, it must demonstrate an “institutional injury”: “Such an injury is not confined to a single legislator, or a small group, but affects each member of the body equally. … In our case, one of the General Assembly’s claimed injuries is an alleged injury to the state—and not the General Assembly.” As such, the General Assembly’s alleged injury was not sufficiently particularized to satisfy the requirements of Article III standing. The court noted that the state’s attorney general may bring a case on behalf of the state, but the General Assembly, on its own, lacks this authority.

Tennessee has not yet indicated whether it intends to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.