By Rachel Logan
At a Sept. 1 virtual city council meeting, members voted to sign an amicus brief to show their support for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). On Aug. 11, councilmembers signed a similar amicus brief supporting Philadelphia’s intolerance for discrimination against same-sex couples. In the last five years, seven amicus briefs have come before the council, according to agendas and minutes posted on the city’s website.
An amicus brief — a brief submitted by “amici curiae,” which translates from Latin as “friends of the court” — is a legal document submitted to an appellate or supreme court to add weight to one party’s arguments. Those who write these briefs must have a strong interest in the case but no legal connection to it, and they can be anything from experts in a field to representatives of a nonprofit organization.
College Park Communications Coordinator Ryna Quinones said that the city lawyer, Suellen Ferguson, doesn’t write the amicus briefs that councilmembers review and vote on. “A councilmember or the mayor brings it to council.”
The amicus briefs signed by College Park councilmembers are usually written by attorneys representing other cities, and these briefs have been passed along to collect additional signatures. The DACA amicus brief was written by the Counsel for Amicus Curiae in Los Angeles. It states that it has the support of “109 cities, counties, municipalities and local government advocacy organizations.”
While the August amicus brief elicited 21 statements from interested parties, the more recent DACA amicus brief prompted limited discussion. Mayor Patrick Wojahn said that the council had debated immigrant issues in the past, so there is existing precedent for what the council supports.
“The council has taken a position in support of recognizing Dreamers and making sure they are able to stay in our community several times over the years,” Wojahn said, referencing individuals protected by DACA. “Oftentimes, because we’ve signed on to [these amicus briefs], we receive emails when new opportunities are coming up.”
Wojahn said that he is part of the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which occasionally sends notifications about amicus briefs.
Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4) abstained from voting on the most recent DACA brief because she didn’t feel sufficiently informed, she said. Mackie was voted onto the city council in November 2019.
“Since I am new on council, I had not been involved in past decisions,” she said. “My abstention was because I didn’t have what I thought I needed to make a fair decision, and also because I felt I could not vote yes or no without my residents knowing what’s going on and giving them a chance to contact me,” she added.
According to Wojahn, “Amicus briefs often come to us quickly, by their very nature, due to deadlines on which they must be submitted.”
Quinones stated that “… deadlines are based on when the case is being heard. It could be next week, or it could be five weeks from now.”
According to minutes, the last time the council voted to support immigrants was in September 2019, when members voted unanimously to sign an amicus brief opposing President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA.
Other amicus briefs brought to councilmembers’ attention include one in 2017 supporting the Maryland attorney general’s opposition to Trump’s immigration ban, one in 2017 regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “waters of the United States” and one in 2015 supporting same-sex couples’ freedom to marry.