Mont. Immigrant Justice Alliance v. Bullock

Citation371 P.3d 430,2016 MT 104,383 Mont. 318
Decision Date10 May 2016
Docket NumberNo. DA 15–0213.,DA 15–0213.
PartiesMONTANA IMMIGRANT JUSTICE ALLIANCE, MEA–MFT; and Alisha Blair, Plaintiffs and Appellees. v. Governor Steve BULLOCK, in his official capacity; Attorney General Timothy C. Fox, in his official capacity; Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education; Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian; in his official capacity; and the State of Montana, Defendants and Appellants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

For Appellant: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Dale Schowengerdt, Solicitor General, Melissa Schlichting, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana.

For Appellee: Brian Miller, Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson, and Deola, PLLP, Helena, Montana, Shahid Haque–Hausrath, Border Crossing Law Firm, P.C., Helena, Montana.

For Amicus ACLU of Montana Foundation: Mark L. Stermitz, Crowley Fleck PLLP, Missoula, Montana, James Park Taylor, ACLU of Montana Foundation, Missoula, Montana.

Justice PATRICIA COTTER

delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 In November 2012 the voters of Montana passed Legislative Referendum 121 (LR 121) by a wide margin. The referendum, codified at § 1–1–411, MCA

, served to deny certain state services to individuals defined by the law to be “illegal aliens.” Before the law went into effect, the Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance (MIJA) sought declaratory and injunctive relief from its provisions. The District Court granted MIJA's request in part, denied it in part, and awarded MIJA attorney fees. The State appeals both the District Court's order granting MIJA summary judgment and its order awarding MIJA attorney fees. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

ISSUES

¶ 2 We address the following issues on appeal:

¶ 3 Did the District Court err in concluding that MIJA has standing to challenge LR 121?

¶ 4 Did the District Court err in concluding that LR 121 is preempted by federal law?

¶ 5 Did the District Court abuse its discretion by awarding attorney fees to MIJA?

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 6 During the 2011 legislative session, the Montana legislature passed House Bill 638, an act denying certain state-funded services to people deemed “illegal aliens,” and submitted the act to the voters of Montana as a legislative referendum. The referendum, LR 121, appeared on the November 6, 2012 ballot and was adopted by Montana voters by a wide margin. LR 121 was then codified at § 1–1–411, MCA

, and went into effect on January 1, 2013. (For the sake of brevity, we generally refer to the law as “LR 121.”)

¶ 7 The statute, entitled “Certain state services denied to illegal aliens,” reads in its entirety:

(1) To the extent allowed by federal law and the Montana constitution and notwithstanding any other state law, a state agency may not provide a state service to an illegal alien and shall comply with the requirements of this section.
(2) To determine whether an applicant for a state service is an illegal alien, the agency may use the systematic alien verification for entitlements [SAVE] program provided by the United States department of homeland security or any other lawful method of making the determination.
(3) A state agency shall notify appropriate personnel in immigration and customs enforcement under the United States department of homeland security or its successor of any illegal alien applying for a state service.
(4) An agency shall require a person seeking a state service to provide proof of United States citizenship or legal alien status.
(5) A state agency shall execute any written agreement required by federal law to implement this section.
(6) As used in this section, the following definitions apply:
(a) “Agency” means a department, board, commission, committee, authority, or office of the legislative or executive branches of state government, including a unit of the Montana university system.
(b) “Illegal alien” means an individual who is not a citizen of the United States and who has unlawfully entered or remains unlawfully in the United States.
(c) “State service” means a payment of money, the grant of a state license or permit, or the provision of another valuable item or service under any of the following programs and provisions of law:
(i) employment with a state agency;
(ii) qualification as a student in the university system for the purposes of a public education, as provided in 20–25–502;
(iii) student financial assistance, as provided in Title 20, chapter 26;
(iv) issuance of a state license or permit to practice a trade or profession, as provided in Title 37;
(v) unemployment insurance benefits, as provided in Title 39, chapter 51;
(vi) vocational rehabilitation, as provided in Title 53, chapter 7;
(vii) services for victims of crime, as provided in Title 53, chapter 9; (viii) services for the physically disabled, as provided in Title 53, chapter 19, parts 3 and 4;
(ix) a grant, as provided in Title 90.

Section 1–1–411, MCA

.

¶ 8 The Montana Immigrant Justice Alliance is a Helena based non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the rights of immigrants in Montana. Among its members are Mexican citizens who entered the United States without being inspected by a customs or immigration official, but who have since obtained lawful permanent residence status. Immigrants in this situation fear that LR 121's definition of “illegal alien” includes them because they entered the United States unlawfully, and that accordingly they will be deprived of state services even though they now are considered documented, lawful immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security.

¶ 9 Motivated in part by this fear, MIJA filed a complaint in District Court on December 7, 2012, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from LR 121. The labor association, MEA–MFT, and a 22 year old Montana resident named Alisha Blair joined MIJA as plaintiffs. The complaint named as defendants various government officials tasked with enforcing provisions of LR 121, including the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Higher Education, as well as the Board of Regents of Higher Education and the State of Montana (collectively the State).

¶ 10 In support of their request for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs argued they were entitled to injunctive relief because the referendum violated certain constitutional rights and was preempted by federal law. The District Court denied the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction as to the majority of LR 121, but enjoined the use of the definition of “illegal alien” in section 1(6)(b) (codified at § 1–1–411(6)(b), MCA

) so as to preclude the State from using an individual's unlawful entry into the United States as a factor in determining that individual's entitlement to state benefits. The District Court also issued a limiting construction to Section 1(2) of LR 121 (codified at § 1–1–411(2), MCA ) so that when determining who is entitled to benefits, the State may not rely solely on the SAVE program but “will further use other lawful methods of making a determination based on federal resources.”

¶ 11 The State then filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of standing, arguing that any alleged injury to plaintiffs caused by LR 121 was abstract and speculative because the law had not been enforced against anyone to date. The District Court agreed that MEA–MFT and Alisha Blair did not have standing and granted the State's motion as to those two plaintiffs. However, the District Court denied the State's motion to dismiss MIJA for lack of standing, finding MIJA's members' “fear of trouble from LR 121 is reasonable” and that declining to review LR 121 would “immunize the referendum from review.”

¶ 12 In the spring of 2014, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and assured the District Court that no factual issues prevented a ruling on the motions. MIJA moved for summary judgment on the issue of federal preemption. The State moved for summary judgment on MIJA's constitutional claims as well as the preemption claim. Following full briefing and a hearing on the motions, the District Court found that LR 121 was preempted in its entirety, with one exception, and granted MIJA's motion for summary judgment as to all but section 1(3) of LR 121 (codified at § 1–1–411(3), MCA

), which requires the State to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of any illegal alien applying for a state service. The District Court simultaneously denied the State's motion for summary judgment, except as to section 1(3).

¶ 13 After the District Court found that LR 121 was preempted by federal law, MIJA filed a motion for attorney fees. The District Court denied the motion. However, four days after the District Court denied MIJA's motion for attorney fees, this Court decided the case of City of Helena v. Svee, 2014 MT 311, 377 Mont. 158, 339 P.3d 32

. MIJA then filed a motion to amend the District Court's earlier ruling denying attorney fees, arguing that this Court's ruling in Svee constituted a notable change in the law concerning the award of attorney fees in declaratory judgment actions. The District Court agreed with MIJA's interpretation of Svee, vacated its November 21, 2014 order denying fees, and awarded MIJA attorney fees. The State now appeals the District Court's June 20, 2014 order on cross motions for summary judgment and the order awarding attorney fees.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 14 We review a district court's entry of summary judgment de novo. McClue v. Safeco Ins. Co., 2015 MT 222, ¶ 8, 380 Mont. 204, 354 P.3d 604

(citing Albert v. City of Billings, 2012 MT 159, ¶ 15, 365 Mont. 454, 282 P.3d 704 ). “Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party demonstrates both the absence of any genuine issues of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.” Albert, ¶ 15 (citing M. R. Civ. P. 56 ). If there is no dispute of material fact, we review whether the district court correctly applied the law. Svee, ¶ 7 (citing Kalispell Educ. Ass'n v. Bd. of...

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