In a presidency already jam-packed with sweeping changes and controversial actions, no move has been so contentious as President Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States;” better known colloquially as the “Muslim Ban.” The executive order placed a 90-day bar against immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, a 120-day bar on all refugees, and a permanent bar against refugees coming out of Syria. The response to the order has been vocal to say the least. However, the response has not just been protests and outcry–the order has also faced a number of legal challenges. Just recently, a Washington court placed an emergency injunction on the “Muslim Ban”–a court order temporarily preventing Trump’s executive order from taking effect.
This isn’t the only, or even the first, court place an injunction on the “Muslim Ban.” Courts in California, New York, and Massachusetts have all issued orders blocking parts of the ban. However, the Washington ruling was the first to stop the entire order in its tracks.
The Washington ruling was quickly appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by the Department of Justice with the goal of overturning the injunction. However, just yesterday, the 9th Circuit came back with a unanimous decision to keep the stay in place.
The Lead Up to the Ruling
In the oral arguments leading up to the decision, the court seemed split but appeared to lean in favor of upholding the ban. Two of the judges on the three judge panel ruling on the case targeted the attorney for the Department of Justice (DoJ) with sharp questions about what evidence they had to support the need of the ban in the despite its potential for unconstitutional discrimination. They also questioned the DoJ’s position that they did not have the power to review Trump’s executive order. The third judge however, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, targeted the lawyer for Washington with equally sharp questions about whether the ban was discriminatory in the first place.
A great deal could be read into these questions, and many felt confident that Washington’s injunction would be upheld 2-1. However, it’s important to remember that questions can be just that–a judge’s job is to challenge both sides of the argument where they see inconsistencies in a pursuit of the truth. Ultimately, the judges–appointed by a mix of Republican and Democrat presidents, came out with a unanimous 3-0 ruling against the “Muslim Ban.”
Why Did They Rule Against the Order?
Where a law, or executive order as the case may be, discriminates against a protected class (such as race, national origin, or religion) it is held to the highest levels of scrutiny and must be absolutely necessary to a crucial national concern with no other less harsh alternatives before it can be constitutional and thus valid. My colleague has previously published an excellent article on the constitutionality–or lack thereof–of a immigration ban targeting Muslim majority countries. While her article focuses on discrimination based on national origin, a very valid concern when we’re talking about an order which singles out people originating from specified nation for worse treatment, Washington’s injunction instead hinges on the argument that the ban singles out Muslims for discrimination.
However, the 9th Circuit’s decision does not go so far as to say that the “Muslim Ban” is or is not discriminatory. Frankly, it doesn’t need to go that far in order to determine whether to uphold an injunction. Instead, they need to make a decision based on whether the injunction itself should stand. This requires them to find that the federal government has provided evidence which establishes that the country would suffer irreparable harm if the “Muslim Ban” were not immediately reinstated.
However, the federal government barely bothered to try to produce evidence on this issue. Instead, they stuck with an argument that the courts had no power to review President Trump’s executive order when it was made on the subject of immigration. While immigration is a subject where the President’s executive orders have the most sway, the idea that an executive order would beat out the Constitution is patently ridiculous and without support. The 9th Circuit said as much in their opinion, stating “The Government has taken the position that the President’s decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections…There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy. Within our system, it is the role of the judiciary to interpret the law, a duty that will sometimes require the ‘[r]esolution of litigation challenging the constitutional authority of one of the three branches.’ We are called upon to perform that duty in this case.” Basically, they told the government that–while executive orders receive deference when it comes to immigration and national security–to say that they are immune to the highest law of the land in the Constitution is a very silly argument indeed.
Thus, with the DoJ focusing on arguing that the Court didn’t have the power to intervene on an unconstitutional executive order, they didn’t really bother to produce any evidence of the danger of keeping the injunction in place. They produced no evidence of terrorist attacks from refugees out of the named countries, really no evidence at all of dangers presented by keeping the injunction in place. Thus, they lost 3-0.
What the Ruling Means
To put it most simple terms, upholding this injunction means that the entirety of President Trump’s executive order will simply not take effect until the case is fully resolved–immigration from the countries listed and refugees from around the world can continue to seek opportunity in the United States of America. At a more abstract level, a unanimous ruling from three judges with differing political ideologies sends a message to the world about how strongly the United States values the Constitutional rights it guarantees.
The case is not completely finished, it can and almost certainly will be appealed directly to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, with large chunks of the executive order designed to end 90 and 120 days after the order was signed it seems likely that these elements will run their course before a decision could come out of the Supreme Court on the issue. This might require the Trump administration to come out with updates to the order if they want these elements in effect–updates which could face their own legal challenges.
What’s more, the Supreme Court currently has only eight sitting members. With a very close ideological split in the Supreme Court, as well as a low chance of appointing a ninth member in time to address the issue, it is possible that the Supreme Court may simply deadlock on the issue as they have many times over the last year of inaction on the seat. This would leave the 9th Circuit ruling in full force.
Still to come is the decision on the actual constitutionality of the order. The 9th Circuit itself was fairly non-committal on the issue, simply stating that both sides had powerful interests in conflict–the government with an interest in national security and the power of executive orders, the public with an interest in free flow of travel, avoiding separation of families, and freedom from discrimination. However, what they did rule on the issue was that the courts should consider the past statements of President Trump and his advisers as to whether the immigration ban was meant to target Muslims in a discriminatory fashion. With President Trump and his advisors frequently declaring, both on the campaign trail and once in office, that an immigration ban targeting Muslims and favoring Christians is on their agenda it seems that this would allow in strong evidence that the “Muslim Ban” is in fact discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Trump Continues his Concerning Disdain for the Court System
As you might have noticed from his argument to the court in this case, President Trump has a penchant for a concerning belief that the he is above the Judiciary Branch of the U.S. Government. Immediately after the ruling he took to Twitter to again publically blast the decision. He has repeatedly questioned the intelligence and competence of every judge who has stood in his way. Just this week he has publically called the courts “disgraceful,” said that they have less understanding than “a bad high school student,” and heavily implied political bias in the entire U.S. Judiciary system. To say this lack of respect and understanding for the third branch ensuring checks and balances within our government is disturbing would be an understatement. Even Neil Gorusch, Trump’s own nominee for the Supreme Court, has called his attitude “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” Hopefully, a unanimous bi-partisan decision such as this will help him understand the importance of law.