The U.S. Supreme Court does not act in haste, so the justices raised some eyebrows last month when they took only two weeks to agree to hear the government’s appeal of an immigration case. Normally it would have taken several months, and a ruling might not have come until 2019. Instead the court is expected to issue a decision in Trump v. Hawaii by the end of the current term, in June.
Why the rush? Because lower-court judges have been playing an extraordinary cat-and-mouse game with the Supreme Court over President Trump’s three executive orders limiting immigration from several terror-prone countries. Over the past year, numerous trial and appellate courts have enjoined those orders, only to have the high court stay their decisions.
The lower-court judges have defied precedent by holding that the president has neither constitutional nor statutory authority to issue these orders. They have improperly questioned Mr. Trump’s motives, even analyzing his campaign statements for evidence of bad intent. And they have responded to each reversal from the high court by spinning new theories to strike down the orders. The judges appear to have joined the “resistance,” and it wouldn’t be surprising if the justices concluded enough is enough.
The case the court will now review is the handiwork of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which engaged in an analysis that ignored key precedents and misapplied accepted canons of statutory interpretation.
Any legal analysis of the travel orders must begin with the core constitutional propositions, articulated by the Supreme Court in Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950), that “an alien who seeks admission to this country may not do so under any claim of right” and that the authority to exclude aliens “stems not alone from legislative power but is inherent in the executive power to control the foreign affairs of the nation.” Congress has the leading role in determining who may immigrate, stay and become a citizen. But the president has independent plenary authority to exclude aliens for foreign-policy or national-security reasons.
The Ninth Circuit brushed aside Knauff and held that Mr. Trump “lacks independent constitutional authority to issue the Proclamation, as control over the entry of aliens is a power within the exclusive province of Congress.” Then it went a step beyond that.
In 1952 Congress enacted a statute authorizing the president to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” whenever he finds their entry to be “detrimental” to the national interest and to establish restrictions on entry. The Ninth Circuit declared that the law as written amounts to an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power—never mind that in Knauff the high court dismissed such a challenge to a similar statute, holding that Congress had merely reaffirmed the president’s own constitutional authority.
The Ninth Circuit further argued that even if the statutory language was constitutional, it was outweighed by a provision in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act barring discrimination on the basis of nationality. But that provision applies to the issuance of immigrant visas, not the entry of aliens. Holding that a statute dealing with one issue vitiates a statute dealing with another matter is not, to put it mildly, an accepted statutory interpretation method.
The circuit judges still weren’t done. They held that even if the 1952 statute applied, Mr. Trump failed to comply with it. The judges characterized his proclamation as reflecting “general immigration concerns” not grounded in critical foreign-policy or national-security findings. In fact, the order clearly stated the action or inaction of the eight designated governments made it impossible to assess adequately whether admission of their nationals creates an unacceptable risk to the U.S.
That was an especially egregious error. The Constitution and Supreme Court cases going back to the seminal Marbury v. Madison (1803) grant the courts no authority to review the discretionary policy choices made by the political branches. When it comes to immigration, the judiciary’s role is limited to determining whether any procedural requirements Congress had enacted have been satisfied. That is what the Supreme Court did in Knauff and what the Ninth Circuit should have done here.
The Supreme Court seems likely to correct this error. The justices voted 7-2 in December to stay any judicial order stopping implementation of the current immigration policy, even before the Ninth Circuit’s decision was issued. One hopes the justices will strongly affirm that the president has the power to exclude aliens from the U.S. for foreign-policy and national-security purposes, and that the judiciary has no role in reviewing his policy choices in this area. A unanimous ruling would send an especially strong message.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.