Another court has weighed in against President Trump’s executive order temporarily limiting entry to the U.S. of aliens from six terrorist hotspot countries in Africa and the Middle East. In ruling against the order last week, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals defied Supreme Court precedent and engaged the judicial branch in areas of policy that the Constitution plainly reserves to the president and Congress. The high court should reverse the decision.
In International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a Maryland district judge’s nationwide injunction halting enforcement of the president’s order. Chief Judge Roger Gregory, writing for the 10-3 majority, acknowledged that the “stated national security interest is, on its face, a valid reason” for the order. But he went on to conclude that the administration acted in bad faith based on, among other things, “then-candidate Trump’s numerous campaign statements expressing animus towards the Islamic faith.”
Whatever one may think of that conclusion as a political matter, as a legal matter the judges overstepped their bounds. The controlling case is Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), in which the Supreme Court rejected a petition from American scholars seeking admission to the country on behalf of a foreign colleague who had been kept out because he advocated communism. The plaintiffs argued that the government’s refusal to admit their colleague on account of his views violated their First Amendment rights. The justices upheld his exclusion and made three things clear: first, aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S.; second, American citizens have no constitutional right to demand entry for aliens; and third, the decision to deny admission to an alien must be upheld if it is based on “a facially legitimate and bona fide reason.”
In holding that Mr. Trump acted in bad faith, the Fourth Circuit fundamentally misconstrued Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Din,which nowhere suggested that, once the government had articulated a facially legitimate purpose, the courts could weigh whether there might have been an additional, improper purpose. As the Fourth Circuit dissenters explained, Mandel requires only a facially legitimate and facially bona fide reason.
Any other standard would constitute an invitation to the judiciary to direct the nation’s foreign and defense policies. Having misapplied Din, the Fourth Circuit went on to apply a standard domestic case-law analysis, under which the existence of a discriminatory purpose essentially dooms the exercise of governmental authority irrespective of other justifications. Under that approach, the government would have lost in Mandel, Fiallo and Din.
If the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning were to stand, it could cripple the president’s ability to defend the country. The judges claim Mr. Trump’s campaign statements, supposedly hostile to Islam rather than Islamist terror, transform his order into an “establishment” of religion in violation of the First Amendment. If the president is forbidden to impose temporary limitations on immigration from any Muslim-majority nations, it would follow that he is prohibited from taking any hostile or unfavorable actions, including the use of economic sanctions or military force, toward any Muslim-majority nation.
It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Fourth Circuit and the other courts that have stayed Mr. Trump’s executive orders on immigration are engaged in the judicial equivalent of the “resistance” to his presidency. Judges are, in effect, punishing the American electorate for having chosen the wrong president. That is not the judiciary’s role. Every federal judge has an obligation to accept the limitations imposed by the Constitution on his power—to exercise “neither force nor will, but merely judgment,” as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 78.
The government is likely to seek an emergency Supreme Court stay of the Fourth Circuit’s decision. That may be difficult, because it requires a showing of “irreparable harm.” But even without a stay, there is little doubt the Supreme Court will remain faithful to its precedents and reverse the Fourth Circuit’s wrongheaded decision.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.