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Byron York: Justice Department demolishes case against Trump order

Protesters march from Lafayette Park near the White House in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, during a rally protesting the immigration policies of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

February 05, 2017

James Robart, the U.S. district judge in Washington State, offered little explanation for his decision to stop President Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending non-American entry from seven terror-plagued countries. Robart simply declared his belief that Washington State, which in its lawsuit against Trump argued that the order is both illegal and unconstitutional, would likely win the case when it is tried.

Now the government has answered Robart, and unlike the judge, Justice Department lawyers have produced a point-by-point demolition of Washington State’s claims. Indeed, for all except the most partisan, it is likely impossible to read the Washington State lawsuit, plus Robart’s brief comments and writing on the matter, plus the Justice Department’s response, and not come away with the conclusion that the Trump order is on sound legal and constitutional ground.

Beginning with the big picture, the Justice Department argued that Robart’s restraining order violates the separation of powers, encroaches on the president’s constitutional and legal authority in the areas of foreign affairs, national security, and immigration, and “second-guesses the president’s national security judgment” about risks faced by the United States.

Indeed, in court last week, Robart suggested that he, Robart, knows as much, or perhaps more, than the president about the current state of the terrorist threat in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and other violence-plagued countries. In an exchange with Justice Department lawyer Michelle Bennett, Robart asked, “How many arrests have there been of foreign nationals for those seven countries since 9/11?”

“Your Honor, I don’t have that information,” said Bennett.

“Let me tell you,” said Robart. “The answer to that is none, as best I can tell. So, I mean, you’re here arguing on behalf of someone [President Trump] that says: We have to protect the United States from these individuals coming from these countries, and there’s no support for that.”

Perhaps Robart has been briefed by the intelligence community on conditions in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and the rest. Perhaps Robart has received the President’s Daily Brief. Perhaps not. In any event, the Justice Department argued — reasonably but not successfully — that it is the president, and not a U.S. District Court judge in the Western District of Washington State, who has the knowledge and the authority to make such decisions.

“Your Honor, I think the point is that because this is a question of foreign affairs, because this is an area where Congress has delegated authority to the president to make these determinations, it’s the president that gets to make the determinations,” Bennett said. “And the court doesn’t have authority to look behind those determinations.”

Robart rejected that position outright. Later, in its emergency brief filed Saturday night with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the government argued that a U.S. District Court judge has no legal right to stop a presidential action in which the president exercised his own constitutional power to conduct foreign policy, as well as power delegated by him to Congress in the area of immigration. The political branches of government have plenary authority over those areas, the government argued, citing cases from 1950, 1952, and 1999:

Judicial second-guessing of the president’s determination that a temporary suspension of entry of certain classes of aliens was necessary at this time to protect national security would constitute an impermissible intrusion on the political branches’ plenary constitutional authority over foreign affairs, national security, and immigration. See, e.g., Harisiades v. Shaughnessy, 342 U.S. 580, 588-89 (1952) (“[A]ny policy toward aliens is vitally and intricately interwoven with contemporaneous policies in regard to the conduct of foreign relations, the war power, and the maintenance of a republican form of government.”). “[I]t is not within the province of any court, unless expressly authorized by law, to review the determination of the political branch of the Government to exclude a given alien.” Knauff, 338 U.S. at 543; see also INS v. Aguirre-Aguirre, 526 U.S. 415, 425 (1999).

In addition, the government argued, “courts are particularly ill-equipped to second-guess the president’s prospective judgment about future risks.” The reason: “Unlike the president, courts do not have access to classified information about the threat posed by terrorist organizations operating in particular nations, the efforts of those organizations to infiltrate the United States, or gaps in the vetting process.”

The government brief supported the president’s decision on both legal and constitutional grounds, starting with the law. And that starts with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which states:

Whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Quoting cases from 2016 and 1977, the Justice Department argued that, specifically in the context of immigration, “the Supreme Court has ‘long recognized the power to expel or exclude aliens as a fundamental sovereign attribute exercised by the government’s political departments largely immune from judicial control.'” “When Congress delegates this plenary power to the executive, the executive’s decisions are likewise generally shielded from administrative or judicial review.”

Earlier presidents have “repeatedly invoked this authority,” the government brief argued, noting actions by Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. The Supreme Court even ruled in 1993 that the president had “ample power” to order a naval blockade to keep out Haitians trying to enter the United States. Surely he has the authority to stop a Libyan, in Libya, from receiving permission to enter the United States.

The government brief noted that the “vast majority” of people affected by the executive order are foreign nationals residing outside the U.S. Yemenis in Yemen, Somalis in Somalia, Libyans in Libya, etc. But Washington State argued that it has an interest, as a state, in stopping the Trump order because “immigration is an important economic driver in Washington.” The state’s lawyers argued that Microsoft alone employs nearly 5,000 H-1B visa holders, and that is in addition to those working for Amazon, Expedia, and Starbucks in the state. Therefore, the people of Washington State have legal standing to challenge the Trump order.