Thoughts on the Ninth Circuit’s Ruling on Trump’s Executive Order

The Ninth Circuit issued a per curiam decision denying the federal government’s request to stay the Temporary Restraining Order, which halted enforcement of President Trump’s Executive Order. The opinion was very narrow and did not address the underlying merits. Thoughts below, full opinion here.

Unsurprisingly, the Ninth Circuit strongly rebuked the federal government’s claim that the Executive Order was unreviewable. And–quite understandably–seized the opportunity to utter statements such as this claim “runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”

The rest of the opinion contained very narrow findings. The explanations surrounding those narrow findings contained some interesting points that could be issues as the litigation proceeds, including:

  1. Can the states bring these claims? The Ninth Circuit was careful in its wording on the standing argument; twice couching their findings with the qualifier that the States’ showing of standing was good enough at this very preliminary stage. The Court’s analysis of standing itself was a bit confusing. The Court declined to even address the States’ argument that it had standing based on their ability to advance the interests of their citizens as parens patraie. Instead, the Court simply found the harm to public universities sufficed to show standing (at this preliminary stage).  According to the Court, the Executive Order’s effects harmed the teaching and researching missions of the public universities and the third party standing doctrine allowed the schools to assert the rights  of students, scholars, and faculty affected by the Order. As the case progresses, this explanation is likely too vague to withstand exacting scrutiny. The Justices can be notorious sticklers when it comes to standing limitations and these limitations are more difficult to clear where the plaintiff is not herself the object of the government action. (See e.g., Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife). But, the States did indicate at oral argument they intend to submit more evidence supporting standing at the preliminary injunction hearing. As the litigants have more time to flesh out their cases, standing could be clearly established for all the claims or be found wanting as to some of the claims.
  2. Which individuals affected by the Executive Order are entitled to due process? The Court found the federal government failed to establish a likelihood it would prevail against the States’ due process claims (at this stage of proceedings). In doing so, the Court made two pronouncements concerning due process. First, the Court declared the Due Process Clause protects all persons in the U.S. (whether lawful, unlawful, or temporary) and certain aliens attempting to reenter the United States after travelling abroad. The Court cited to Supreme Court language construing due process rights for lawful permanent resident aliens, but did not explicitly specify which aliens fell within this category. Second, the Court identified five categories of individuals for whom the states could have “potential claims regarding possible due process rights….” These included: (a) lawful permanent residents, (b) individuals in the United States (even if unlawfully), (c) non-immigrant visa holders who have been in the United States but temporarily departed or wish to temporarily depart, (d) refugees, and (e) applicants who have a relationship with a U.S. resident or an institution that might have rights of its own to assert. This list indicates potential trouble for the States. Individuals unlawfully in the U.S. have due process rights, but it is unclear how those rights are implicated by this Executive Order. What cognizable interest of those unlawfully in the United States is implicated by an Executive Order prohibiting entry into the United States? As to non-immigrant visa holders, the government indicates this merely permits the individual to travel to a U.S. port of entry and request permission to enter, it does not entitle the holder to entry into the U.S. (click here). It seems plausible that a court could apply a bitter-with-sweet approach, finding these individuals accepted  the benefit of a visa and must accept the restrictions on that benefit. The fifth class cited by the Court includes applicants who have a relationship with a U.S. institution who might have rights of its own. This class is somewhat bizarre. It seems rather novel that the rights of an institution could somehow bestow constitutional due process rights on non-U.S. citizens outside the United States.
  3. What impact will the Executive Order’s purpose play in the religious discrimination claims? The Court was particularly cryptic on the religious discrimination issue, noting that the States’ claims “raised serious allegations and presented significant constitutional questions.” But, the Court demurred on the substantive aspects, only indicating that evidence beyond the face of the challenged law to show the law’s purpose may be considered in evaluating  the Establishment and Equal Protection Clause claims.
  4. What impact will the President’s discretionary authority have? Apart from acknowledging that “courts owe considerable deference to the President’s policy determinations with respect to immigration and national security,” the Court did not provide much analysis on executive power. There was no mention of the statutory battle over the Immigration and Nationality Act, a provision of which authorizes the President to suspend entries into the U.S. for national interests. Also, during oral argument, Judge Clifton asked the States to differentiate between their case and the President’s ability to halt immigration from other countries, including past instances where the President has actually done so. If the States want to prevail, they will need to develop a satisfying answer as to why the President generally has the power to halt immigration, but cannot exercise it in this specific manner.
  5. Did the Ninth Circuit believe the Executive Order was constitutionally defective? On one ancillary issue, the breadth of the Temporary Restraining Order,  the Ninth Circuit levied a somewhat unfair slight to the federal government that indicates the answer is yes. The federal government had argued the TRO was overbroad and requested the terms be narrowed to only those individuals involved in the suit. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged “[t]here might be persons covered by the TRO who do not have viable due process claims,” but declined the request. The Court pronounced it was not their job to rewrite the Executive Order and provided a citation for the principle courts could decline to rewrite a statute to eliminate constitutional defects. The refusal to fashion language that would allow the Executive Order to be enforced against anyone coupled with the tone of that rejection could indicate the Court believed the Order was constitutionally deficient. It was also a bit unfair. The federal government was not asking the Executive Order be rewritten, but that the TRO-a federal judicial order under the Court’s purview-be more narrowly tailored. In the alternative, the refusal could simply be because this was a highly visible public case being heard on an emergency basis. The federal government’s requested language was not adequate and the Court did not have time to draft its own revision of the TRO.

Next up will likely be the preliminary injunction proceedings in the district court, unless the federal government appeals this denial.