US Federal Appeals Court Upholds Suspension of Trump Travel Ban

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Alicia Nicholls

Less than a month after taking office, the Trump Administration received another judicial blow yesterday to one of its major policy actions. The United States’  Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in its decision in State of Washington v Trump dismissed the Government’s motion for a stay pending appeal of an order of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington which had temporarily suspended the travel ban nationwide.

Background

The genesis to the legal dispute was an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” signed by President Trump on January 27, 2017. Inter alia, the order sought to ban for 90 days entry into the US of all nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries, namely Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia, and indefinitely suspended entry of all Syrian refugees into the US. It also sought to suspend the US Refugee Admissions programme for 120 days, with further direction that on recommencement of the programme, the Secretary of State should prioritise refugees of a minority faith in their country (in this case it would be Christians) with claims of religious persecution.

Upon its signature, the executive order’s impact was quick and brutal. Not only were thousands of visas cancelled but US greencard holders were among those who were either stranded at airports, separated from their families or being deported pursuant to the order. Protests erupted across the US and in several other countries. Several legal challenges were filed, including rulings by federal judges in New York and Massachusetts against the ban. Among the chaos, President Trump swiftly fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend the constitutionality of the order.

The decisive blow to the travel ban came after the February 3rd ruling of Judge James Robart, federal judge in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. In State of Washington v Trump et. al , a challenge brought by the State of Washington, Judge Robart  held that certain actions of the executive order were ultra vires the constitution, enjoining the government from implementing those provisions and granting a temporary nation-wide restraining order. Thereupon, the Department of Homeland Security suspended implementation of the executive order, whilst the Government prepared its appeal.

Issue 

In the instant case, the Court was asked to consider the Government’s request for an emergency stay of the temporary nation-wide restraining order issued by Judge Robart. The Government requested the stay pending appeal of the order.

Arguments

The Government argued that the federal district court lacked authority to enjoin enforcement of the order because the President has “unreviewable authority to suspend the admission of any class of alien” and that his/her decisions on immigration policy and national security are unreviewable even where they contravene constitutionally-enshrined rights and protections. They further submitted that any challenge to such presidential authority by the judicial branch would be a violation of the principle of separation of powers.

Counsel for the Government also argued that the States of Washington and Minnesota had no locus standi in this matter. However, the Court found that by showing the harm caused to their universities’ research and teaching because of the impact of the travel ban on those faculty members and students who are nationals of those countries, the states met the test for standing of “concrete and particularised injury” as was elaborated in Lujan v Defenders of Wildlife.

In their arguments before the lower court, the states had argued that the executive order violated the procedural rights of aliens, including denying entry to greencard holders and non-immigrant visa holders without sufficient notice and without giving them an opportunity to respond. The states had also argued that the damage to their state economies and public universities were in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments to the US constitution and that they violated a wide range of Acts, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Counsel for the states also reminded the court of President Trump’s words during the campaign as support for their argument that it was intended to be a “Muslim ban” and not an act to protect against terrorist attacks by foreign nationals.

In the instant case before the federal appeals court, one of the things the Government had had  to show that it was likely to prevail against the due process claims made by the States.

Judgment

The learned judges, William C. Canby, Richard R. Clifton, and Michelle T. Friedland, considered four main questions in arriving at their decision: likelihood of the Government’s success on the merits of its appeal, whether the applicant would be irreparably injured absent a stay, whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceedings, and where the public interest lies.

In an unanimous ruling (3-0), the Court denied the Government’s emergency motion for a stay, finding that the Government has neither shown a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal nor has it shown that failure to enter a stay would cause irreparable injury.

Moreover, in dismissing the Government’s central claim about the unreviewability of the president’s decisions on immigration policy, the court argued that there was no precedent to support this claim and that it is a claim which “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy”. The court rightly argued that it was merely exercising its role of interpreting the law. Relying on decided cases, the court held that while courts owe a deference to the executive branch in matters of immigration and national security, this does not mean that the courts lack authority to review compliance of executive branch actions with the constitution.

So what next?

True to form, President Trump used Twitter as his medium of choice to express his displeasure with the verdict. It is likely that the next step for the administration will be to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

The full text of the Court’s judgment may be obtained here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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