In the travel-ban case, a high-court ‘compromise’ delivers a unanimous rebuke to political judges.
By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal
In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.
The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.
The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity.
That, the court specifically cautioned, is not an invitation for evasion by immigration advocates: “For example, a nonprofit group devoted to immigration issues may not contact foreign nationals from the designated countries, add them to client lists, and then secure their entry by claiming injury from their exclusion.”
That exception, Justice Thomas noted for the dissenters, was a “compromise”—most likely the product of Chief Justice John Roberts’s effort to achieve a unanimous decision. Given the circumstances, this was a good outcome. It lends the imprimatur of the full court to the rebuke of the lower courts, and avoids the kind of partisan split that prevailed in both the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. All nine justices are also now on record supporting the proposition that the vast majority of foreign nationals cannot claim a constitutional right to enter the United States.
When the court reviews the merits of the case in the fall, however, such considerations will be out of place. While courts can adjudicate cases involving immigration and other foreign affairs issues, judicial engagement in this space is fundamentally different than in domestic affairs. In an area of decision-making that involves both institutional knowledge of international affairs and continuous access to classified information, great deference is in order from the courts. If the courts wade into this area, they would undermine both national security and respect for the judiciary. The perception that judging is swayed by political or ideological considerations would be particularly calamitous in this area. Better a 5-4 decision articulating this view clearly than a unanimous but equivocal one.
The odds of a clear outcome are good. As Justice Thomas pointed out, his colleagues’ “implicit conclusion” is that the administration is likely to prevail on the merits. The high court’s own precedent in this area is clear. Nonresident aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. When denying entry, the president need only provide a “facially legitimate and bona fide” justification. As the court held in Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), once that justification is established, there is no further inquiry or balancing for the courts to make.
Any other decision would be both inconsistent with the court’s precedent and injurious to the Constitution’s separation of powers. It would also compromise the president’s ability to defend the nation at home and abroad and cause grave harm to the judicial branch in maintaining its own critical constitutional role.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.