Travel Ban Argument: Weird Cases Make for Bad Law

I was in the courtroom for this morning’s argument in Trump v. Hawaii, otherwise known as the “travel ban” case. Recall that this is Travel Ban 3.0, which is the most detailed executive action regarding entry restrictions yet. Indeed, Solicitor General Noel Francisco called it the most detailed immigration proclamation ever (in contrast to earlier ones by President Carter regarding Iranians and President Reagan regarding Cubans).

It’s an odd case: as Neal Katyal, lawyer for Hawaii and the other state and private challengers, put it, if Donald Trump hadn’t made all his various campaign statements and tweets about Muslim bans, “we wouldn’t be here.” In other words, “no president has ever said anything like this.”

In a normal case involving an executive action over national security, no court would ever second-guess the president. But this isn’t a normal case or a typical president, so the Supreme Court struggled mightily over a travel ban that, all sides seem to agree, wouldn’t be a legal controversy if any other president had implemented it. Indeed, the whole course of the litigation would’ve been different if Travel Ban 1.0—the one President Trump signed his first week in office without interagency process or guidance to the line agents who were supposed to implement it, causing chaos at airports—had been skipped and we’d gone straight to the more fully lawyered 2.0. I doubt there would’ve been quite as much judicial resistance and treatment of this president differently from the president.

But that’s a historical counterfactual, so you go to court with the facts you have.

Of course, it’s not that unusual for a court to apply a law to factual circumstances that were never contemplated. Here, the relevant immigration provision gives the executive wide discretion to deny entry to any type of foreigner when citing great national interest—and it’s not hard to square that with other provisions regarding nondiscrimination in granting visas. Courts don’t get to review that kind of determination.

That really should be the end of it, even if one thinks, as I do, that the travel ban doesn’t do much for national security and has a greater symbolic than practical effect. And it should be the end of it regardless whether one think that in his heart of hearts Donald Trump has anti-Muslim animus.

Chief Justice John Roberts will try mightily to cobble together a coalition to make this case go away on jurisdictional or other narrow grounds. Justice Neil Gorsuch seems ready to join him (presumably Justice Clarence Thomas too), while Justice Samuel Alito was clearly with the government on the merits. Justice Elena Kagan was the only one on the left who raised pointed questions of Katyal; given her views on administrative law and the breadth of the immigration statute here, she’s “gettable” for some sort of technical compromise. To do so, the Court would likely have to finesse Sale v. Haitian Centers Council (1993), in which it found claims against immigration-related executive actions to be justiciable (before recognizing the executive’s broad discretion in this area).

Given that weird cases make for bad law, we can only hope that, however the Court rules, no strong precedent is set.