California attorney general defends millions spent to sue Trump
California’s war against the Trump Administration is costing state taxpayers millions for lawyers and other costs connected to nearly four dozen lawsuits.
Costs to fight the federal government in court have more than tripled since President Donald Trump took office, according to data provided to The Sacramento Bee by the California Department of Justice.
California has filed 44 lawsuits against the Trump administration in the past 21 months, with major battles on health care, immigration and energy policy. The federal government, meanwhile, has filed three suits against California. The price tag for the California vs. Trump war was $9.2 million for the 2017-2018 fiscal year ending June 30, up from $2.8 million the previous year — which included six months of the president’s first year in office.
The total federal workload for attorneys, expert analysis and other legal costs represented a little more than 1 percent of the total $894 million Department of Justice budget, up from a third of a percent the previous year.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat and former 12-term member of the House, justified the spending, saying the potential harm California faces from the administration’s actions — both economically and socially — far outweighs the cost to taxpayers.
“We are the No. 1 economy in the country, large enough that we’ve become the fifth largest in the world. That happens because we made investments — we made decisions which others have been unwilling to make,” Becerra said. “Our prosperity is intertwined with our progressive nature.”
But Republican leaders and taxpayer advocates say the lawsuits amount to a political stunt and a waste of taxpayer money.
“Just because California and its Democratic leaders disagree with something the president or his administration does, that doesn’t mean the courts are the place to have that disagreement,” said Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney and committeewoman for the Republican National Committee. “Xavier Becerra is misusing the courts to score political points.
“Not only is this a massive waste of taxpayer resources, but every time he files one of these frivolous lawsuits, that takes federal resources and court time — that means less time for immigration cases, business disputes, trademark cases, asylum cases.”
California has sued the Trump administration to prevent the federal government from ending citizenship protections for so-called Dreamers, to avert a rollback of its 2017 “sanctuary state” law, to prohibit the government from asking questions about immigration status on the 2020 Census and to defend the state’s strong fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.
The state has also led several high-profile fights to halt Republican-led efforts to undo Obamacare, and is challenging Trump directly on promises to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and to slow the arrival into the country of immigrants seeking asylum.
“It’s an enormous cost, and there’s an enormous amount at stake,” said Jessica Levinson, a clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “I’m surprised it’s not a greater increase, because Xavier Becerra was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to use every legal tool at his disposal to show that we are the capital of the resistance.”
The state is showing no signs of backing down.
“When you put into perspective that less than one percent of our budget is going to defend our people, our values and our resources, I think most people would say ‘Don’t stop,’” Becerra said. “Because any one of those items…would dwarf what we’d have to spend for all the litigation efforts that we’ve undertaken to defend the state of California against the federal government’s intrusion.”
Becerra has led legal efforts in some cases, and in others, has joined lawsuits filed by other Democratic state attorneys general, including those from Washington and New York.
The tactics mirror those of Republican attorneys general who fought the Obama administration on some of the same territory — particularly on environmental regulations.
Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump, for example, led several high-profile lawsuits as attorney general of Oklahoma taking on that same agency he later was appointed to lead. In total, GOP-led states sued the Obama administration 46 times over eight years, according to the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sued California three times, including over its sanctuary state law and the state’s new net neutrality law.
Becerra argued that if California doesn’t fight back against Trump, the state would risk losing billions of dollars a year, and people would pay more for goods and services, such as gasoline, high-speed Internet and health care.
“You’re going to be driving dirtier vehicles; buying more gasoline. By the time you add up all the costs involved to a consumer by going dirty, it adds up, and that doesn’t take into account society’s cost of having a more polluted environment,” Becerra said.
On the Trump administration’s proposal to ask people to disclose their immigration status on the Census questionnaire, Becerra said the “consequences (are) as big as any other case that we’re litigating, because you’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars and representation in Congress.”
The Census population count is used to distribute federal funding to states, including for health care programs for children and the indigent. An undercount, resulting from lower participation, could result in less federal funding flowing in to the state.
California’s lawsuit against the Trump administration on the federal health care law is among the most costly to date, Becerra said. The department did not provide a breakdown of costs by lawsuit, but generally, the more complicated a lawsuit is, the more expensive — especially those that require expert analysis and court appearances.
“It’s taken several forms,” Becerra said about the lawsuit to prevent the unraveling of Obamacare. California has intervened in the case, in federal court in Texas, to require the Trump administration to continue making subsidy payments to insurers to help offset costs for patient health care plans sold under Obamacare.
“Every time there’s an attack on the Affordable Care Act, because California has been the most successful in implementing it, we’re going to defend it,” Becerra said.
The majority of California’s cases are still pending, with the costs escalating.
Of the 44 total lawsuits, California has received a favorable ruling in 21, according to an analysis by Becerra’s office. The Trump administration has also triumphed, including on the border wall lawsuit in February, when a judge in San Diego said the federal government has broad authority to waive dozens of environmental laws to advance construction.
Becerra appealed, calling the border wall proposal “medieval.”
“We are committed to protecting our people, our values and our economy from federal overreach,” Becerra said.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the spending reflects poorly on Democratic leaders, who hold all constitutional offices in California.
“These lawsuits, including some of the more complicated ones, represent little more than political posturing by California politicians,” Coupal said. “Compared to the $120 billion state general fund, it may not seem like much, but it’s symbolic of an attitude of waste and foolish pursuits by our state government officials.”