Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Muslim Ban

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in the case of Trump v. Hawaii challenging the constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation 9645, otherwise known as Muslim Ban 3.0.

Americans and impacted communities have been fighting back against Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban for over a year, and today is the culmination of our collective efforts. By June of this year, we will learn whether the Supreme Court will allow a Muslim Ban to forever be enshrined into law as a shameful American moral and ethical blunder.

Lawyers on both sides argued their positions today on three key questions presented to the Court: First, whether the President’s travel ban is justiciable. In order for a case to be justiciable, there is a requirement that there be some existing controversy between the parties, that the case be neither premature or a case where the threat of injury has been removed, and that the case does not ask the court to make a determination of a political question. The Supreme Court also heard argument about whether the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Solicitor general, Noel Francisco, arguing on behalf of the government relied heavily on the argument that there was a wide, multi-agency, international review conducted to determine which countries would be designated under the travel ban for failing to meet a baseline of information sharing, and added that the vast majority of Muslim countries were excluded from the ban. Justice Sotomayor pushed back early and asked if the government could represent that no other country that failed to meet the cooperation test was excluded from the travel restrictions. The government responded that Somalia and Iraq were excluded under the “tailored nature” of the ban, also making reference to Chad being taken off of the list of banned countries.

Justice Kagan joined in with a hypothetical of an “out-of-the-box kind of president” posed to the government: suppose a president is elected after a vehemently anti-semitic campaign where the candidate regularly disparaged Jews. The president then asked his staff to issue recommendations for security and what emerged was a travel ban on Israeli’s. The government responded that it was a tough hypothetical and he was not sure that this type of ban would survive rational basis scrutiny because of Israel being a close ally. Justice Kagan went on to say that this hypothetical, bearing a strong resemblance to President Trump, would not be about what is in the president’s heart, rather what the reasonable observer of the president’s conduct would think.

Justice Sotomayor pressed the government hard on the Kagan hypothetical questioning why the actions of the committee charged with finding a way to keep Jews out should not be subject to great suspicion and thorough review given that the committee is responsible to the president and they have been told what the outcome of their responsibility must be. Justice Sotomayor also eluded to the worldwide review report that served as the basis for the Presidential Proclamation and how it has been kept confidential and not been shared with either the litigants or the courts.

Justice Kennedy followed up on the hypothetical asking the government whether challengers, under that scenario, could bring claims under the Free Speech or Free Exercise Clauses, which the government conceded that they could.

The questioning later shifted to Trump’s campaign statements. The government asserted that the Presidential Proclamation is “very transparent” and that statements made by candidate Trump are “out of bounds” for consideration by the court. The government’s reasoning is that the taking of the oath as president marks a “fundamental transformation” from private citizen to public servant.

Justice Kennedy, widely considered a crucial swing vote, gave the government another hypothetical in which a candidate for mayor repeatedly made hateful statements, and took actions consistent with those statements once taking office. Justice Kennedy asks if those statements are irrelevant. The government again responds arguing that the actions taken by Trump are not a Muslim ban because the travel ban does not apply to the majority of the Muslim world and it was based on neutral criteria.

Justice Breyer shifted the questioning to the case-by-case waiver process and expressed skepticism that the number of individuals that have received waivers is enough to overcome the “real problem” of not having a good waiver process in place.

Neal Katyal argued next on behalf of Hawaii and began by saying that Congress has decided to reject nationality based bans before, opting to use a “carrot and stick” approach to reward countries that comply with requirements by fast-tracking entry. Katyal argued that in fact, the government has only identified a single problem, which is not individualized vetting but rather certain countries not cooperating.

Justice Alito questioned Katyal on the president’s authority under the current federal immigration law to exclude any alien or class of aliens whose presence would be deemed detrimental to the United States. Alito also asked if this Proclamation actually does anything to establish a new perpetual immigration policy for the United States. Katyal responded that this Proclamation is a perpetual, indefinite, open-ended ban with no sunset provision.

Justice Kennedy interjected saying that re-examination by the administration every 180 days in the form of a report submitted to the White House indicates a reassessment, adding “you want the President to say ‘I’m convinced in 6 months we are going to have a safe country?’” Justice Kennedy also quotes statutory language indicating he believes the president has broad latitude and authority in immigration policy.

Testing the outer limits of Katyal’s Establishment Clause theory, Justice Roberts posed another hypothetical: if the president’s advisors recommended an airstrike on Syria, would that violate the Establishment Clause because Syria is a Muslim-majority country and, therefore, anti-Muslim discrimination? Katyal pushed back arguing that this Proclamation was not introduced in the context of a pressing national security emergency like the hypothetical. In addition, Katyal stressed that the Establishment Clause is not at the heart of Hawaii’s position, but rather the flouting of Congressional authority in the context of immigration law. Arguing this point, Katyal said that if there are no limits to the president’s ability to prohibit the entry of any class of aliens, he could potentially ban software engineers from entering so as to protect the technology sector. Katyal argued that generally, the president can supplement congressional policy, but cannot completely supplant it.

Chief Justice Roberts also returned to the political rhetoric of the president from the campaign, promising a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Katyal argued that if President Trump had repudiated his campaign remarks, the Establishment Clause arguments would not exist, but the president has not repudiated; he has doubled down by complaining about his administration drafting a “watered down, politically correct version” to cure legal deficiencies, and retweeted anti-Muslim videos with captions like “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” and “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!’

Justice Alito questioned how a reasonable observer could conclude that this was a Muslim Ban when only 8% of the world’s Muslims are impacted. Katyal rebuts by arguing that the point of focus should not be the 8% of the world’s Muslims, but the fact that 98% of the people affected are Muslim, or what he referred to as “religious gerrymandering.”

It becomes clear towards the end of the hearing that the Supreme Court’s decision may turn on whether it believes that the exceptions to the travel ban are substantive exceptions allowing individuals admission into the U.S., or whether they are merely “window dressing” for a broader categorical ban much different than those imposed by Presidents Carter and Reagan. Along these lines, Katyal directed the court’s attention to the case of a 10-year-old Yemeni girl with cerebral palsy who was denied medical entry into the United States. Justice Sotomayor questioned Mr. Francisco about the girl to which he responded that he was was not familiar with the case

Interestingly, the government revealed that to date, 430 exceptions (or case-by-case waivers) have been granted, though he stopped short of saying how many have been requested or rejected. Mr. Francisco also revealed that consular officers automatically check visa applications to see if they qualify for an exception/waiver. This is in direct contrast to what NIAC has heard from visa applicants who have received form letters and categorical denials of visas without being considered for waivers.

The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision by the end of June. In any event, other components of the broader Muslim Ban policy will remain no matter what the court decides. NIAC will continue to fight back against ‘extreme vetting’ and the sham waiver process in court, and on the Hill. Congress must immediately put an end to its shameful side-stepping and finally fulfill its duty to fully repeal this hateful and bigoted ban.

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Shayan ModarresShayan Modarres
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