Is California really ‘winning’ in court against the Trump administration?

Sep 26, 2019

Democratic-controlled California has been labeled the "State of Resistance," in large part for challenging the Trump administration in federal court on issues ranging from the environment to immigration to the U.S. census. 

As of late September, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra had filed or joined 60 lawsuits against the Trump administration. His office has also filed friend of the court briefs in several additional cases against the administration. 

But is California really "winning" in court as Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom have confidently claimed? 

"We are winning. The vast majority of the lawsuits have been adjudicated in favor of California," Newsom said at a news conference on Sept. 16 at the state Capitol. 

Becerra has been equally self-assured: 

"Every time we go to court, for the most part, we win," Becerra claimed at a late August news conference where he announced one of California’s 14 lawsuits on immigration since the president took office. That suit seeks to block to block Trump administration rules that could indefinitely detain migrant children and their families. 

"If I were a baseball player, my batting average would be the envy of the MLB," he quipped in a Mercury-News article in May. "We’re proving that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States."

We set out to fact check Becerra’s claim: "Every time we go to court, for the most part, we win." 

Our research

CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization, along with a Marquette University political science professor have separately tracked California’s lawsuits against the Trump administration. Records from both generally support Becerra’s claim that the state is winning in court, at least for the cases that have received rulings so far, though they also show the majority of lawsuits are still pending a final decision. 

The CalMatters database of 60 lawsuits showed the state had won 16 completed cases and lost two, while 38 are pending and another four were on hold, as of late September. 

California has scored some clear victories. In July, it prevailed in its effort to block the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the move and Trump abandoned his plan. The state also won a case against the administration’s attempt in 2017 to cut off certain federal funds for "sanctuary" jurisdictions. A district court ruled the move was unconstitutional. California again sued the administration last year after it withheld money for similar reasons. The state was also victorious in several cases where it sued to ensure federal energy and environmental regulations were implemented. 

In February, the state was dealt one of its few defeats following its lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from waiving environmental laws to speed up border wall construction of in California. A federal district judge and later an appeals panel ruled in favor of Trump. The state also lost a case it joined opposing Trump’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. The first version of the ban was struck down by a lower court, while a second partially went into effect but then expired. The Supreme Court upheld a third version in June 2018. 

Earlier in Becerra’s August news conference, the AG offered a more nuanced and complete version of his statement about California winning in court. 

"Unfortunately, close to 60 times now this administration has taken actions which would harm the people of the state of California. And in most of the cases that we’ve filed, we have been victorious so far in the rulings that we’ve secured," Becerra told reporters.

A spokesperson for Becerra provided a list of the state’s cases against the Trump administration, along with information about the status of each, though not an explicit win/loss breakdown. 

"Some have concluded, but many are ongoing," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

‘California has had great success in court’

Paul Nolette, the Marquette political science professor, is tracking all multi-state lawsuits against the Trump administration. His database includes the majority of cases filed by California against the administration, though not the 13 solo cases the state has filed against it.

As of mid-September, Nolette said California had been successful on nearly 90 percent of the multi-state lawsuits that had received at least an initial judgment, though he cautioned that a majority of the cases are still awaiting a final ruling. 

"California has had great success in court against the Trump administration, looking at both those completed cases as well as looking at those other cases that are still working their way up through the system," Nolette said. 

Here’s how the state has fared, based on Nolette’s data:

     • It is involved in 53 multi-state lawsuits against the Trump administration

     • Of those, 21 cases have been completed while 32 are pending a final ruling

     • Of the 21 completed cases, it has won 16 and lost three. Two were voluntarily dismissed

Nolette said California’s record in the pending, multi-state cases is also good. 

"In cases where there’s been some sort of court judgment or ruling, California is 10 and 0. And some of those cases may still be on appeal. So, they could still lose," he said. "But, I think if you combine both of those together (the pending and completed cases), that’s a lot of wins: Really 26 clear wins in these cases, against only three losses."

California’s solo cases

Like the multi-state cases, California has had some early success in cases it has brought independently against the Trump administration. 

The attorney general’s office described 13 of its 60 lawsuits against the Trump administration as "California-only suits." Among those cited by the AG’s office, the state has two clear victories and one loss, according to a review by PolitiFact California. 

Nine of the cases are still pending, while one seeking conflict of interest documents from former EPA Director Scott Pruit was settled with the EPA producing the documents when Pruitt resigned last year without admitting guilt. 

UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson agreed California has a successful record in court so far.

"I think generally it’s a fair statement," he said of claims California is ‘winning.’ "It’s not as easy as saying whether a team won a football game, though. Some of these cases are far from completion. For example, in the cases challenging the president’s executive order on punishing and defunding sanctuary jurisdictions, the case isn’t over."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. 

Our ruling 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra claimed at an August news conference, "Every time we go to court," against the Trump administration, "for the most part, we win." 

A Marquette political science professor and CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization, are separately tracking California’s lawsuits. Their records each show the state has won the vast majority of cases that have received at least an initial or completed ruling. 

But that doesn’t mean California has won "every time we go to court," as Becerra put it, even acknowledging his qualifier "for the most part."

Most cases are still working their way through the courts and have yet to receive final judgments, some of which could go against California. That important caveat is not reflected in Becerra’s claim.  

Becerra does, however, offer a more complete statement earlier in the press conference, saying "in most of the cases that we’ve filed, we have been victorious so far in the rulings that we’ve secured." 

Given this context and California’s early success in court, Becerra’s claim is generally accurate. 

We rate his claim Mostly True. 

MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.