Sanctuary Cities and the Power of the Purse: An Executive Dole Test

47 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2020 Last revised: 28 Oct 2023

Date Written: August 7, 2020


A constitutional clash is brewing. Cities and counties are flexing their muscles to frustrate national immigration policy while the federal Executive is threatening to interfere with local law enforcement decisionmaking and funding. Although the federal government generally has plenary authority over immigration law, the Constitution forbids the commandeering of state and local officials to enforce federal law against their will. One exception to this anti-commandeering principle is the Spending Clause of Article I that permits Congress to condition the receipt of federal funds on compliance with federal law. These conditions, according to more than thirty years of Supreme Court precedent since South Dakota v. Dole, must be clearly articulated in advance, related to the underlying purpose of the federal funds, and not deemed coercive by the courts.

The Attorney General recently announced conditions on federal law enforcement grants that would defund police departments who do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. These new funding conditions triggered legal challenges by a dozen jurisdictions under the Spending Clause. While the case law is clear that Congress may delegate its authority to the Executive to add conditions on federal grants, two important questions remain unresolved: (1) does the authority to add conditions on spending inherently attach to delegations to implement federal grant programs or must that authority be delegated separately and unambiguously? and (2) are executive conditions subject to the same standards of clarity, germaneness, and non-coercion? Recent threats by the President to withhold funding for elections, education, and public parks amplify the need for clarity on these questions.

In this Article, I argue that executive conditions on federal spending are unquestionably appropriate, but only when Congress has unambiguously delegated the authority to add conditions. This delegation should not act as a loophole in the Dole doctrine. In fact, because the central constitutional concern in Spending Clause cases is the undue aggrandizement of federal power at the (literal) expense of the states, I argue that executive conditions on federal spending should be subject to stricter limits than conditions imposed by Congress; inter-branch coordination poses a greater threat to state sovereignty than either Congress or the Executive acting alone. The upshot of stricter executive limits is that conditions on federal spending will likely shift away from the Executive to Congress, which may be desirable on accountability grounds.

Finally, the recent appointment of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court have raised the stakes of this particular debate. Both of the new Justices have publicly articulated concerns about expanding federal power and federal administrative power in particular. The question of sua sponte executive conditions on federal grants-in-aid thus pose a ripe opportunity for skeptics of the administrative state to rein in the regulatory state in particular, and the Spending Clause more generally.

Keywords: conditional spending, federal grants, federalism, spending clause

Suggested Citation

Spencer, Douglas M., Sanctuary Cities and the Power of the Purse: An Executive Dole Test (August 7, 2020). Iowa Law Review, vol. 106, no. 3, pp. 1209-1251 (2021), Available at SSRN: or

Douglas M. Spencer (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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