The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals violated both judicial precedent and the Constitution’s separation of powers in its ruling against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. If the ruling stands, it will pose a danger to national security.
Under normal rules of standing, the states of Washington and Minnesota should never have been allowed to bring this suit. All litigants, including states, must meet fundamental standing requirements: an injury to a legally protected interest, caused by the challenged action, that can be remedied by a federal court acting within its constitutional power. This suit fails on every count.
The plaintiff states assert that their public universities are injured because the order affects travel by certain foreign students and faculty. But that claim involved no legally protected interest. The granting of visas and the decision to admit aliens into the country are discretionary powers of the federal government. Unadmitted aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. In hiring or admitting foreigners, universities were essentially gambling that these noncitizens could make it to America and be admitted. Under the theory of standing applied in this case, universities would be able to sponsor any alien, anywhere in the world, then go to court to challenge a decision to exclude him.
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U.C. Berkeley Law School Professor John Yoo on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images.
It is also settled law that a state can seek to vindicate only its own rights, not those of third parties, against the national government. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923) that it is not within a state’s duty or power to protect its citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.” Thus the plaintiffs’ claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.
Even if states could articulate a concrete injury, this is not a case in which the courts ultimately can offer redress. The Constitution grants Congress plenary power over immigration, and Congress has vested the president by statute with broad, nonreviewable discretionary authority to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens . . . he may deem to be appropriate” to protect “the interest of the United States.” Numerous presidents have used this authority to suspend entry of aliens from specific countries.
Further, as the Supreme Court explained in Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950), the authority to exclude aliens “stems not alone from the legislative power but is inherent in the executive power to control the foreign affairs of the nation.” In issuing the order, the president was acting at the apex of his authority. As Justice Robert Jackson noted in Youngstown v. Sawyer (1952): “When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.” That point the Ninth Circuit ignored entirely.
The order, frequently mischaracterized as a “Muslim ban,” is actually directed at seven countries that the president believes present a particular threat to U.S. security—a view with which Congress agreed in 2015. All are beset by terrorists and so uncertain and chaotic that proper vetting of potential refugees and immigrants is virtually impossible.
President Obama chose to toughen vetting standards for these countries’ nationals rather than bar their entry completely. But if Mr. Trump has a different view of the threat, it is not up to the courts to decide who is right. This is a classic example of a nonjusticiable “political question,” involving matters constitutionally vested in the president and Congress.
Judges—were they adjudicating a suit brought by a party with standing—could overturn the president’s order if it entailed clear violations of due process or equal protection. But attempting to discern Mr. Trump’s motivation in selecting these countries exceeds the judiciary’s proper constitutional role. Judges scrutinize government motives in the domestic context, if presented with allegations that facially neutral governmental action is motivated by invidious discrimination. That inquiry is inappropriate in the foreign-policy sphere.
Under the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s precedent, the judiciary is institutionally incapable of analyzing the complicated matrix for foreign-policy determinations that support such actions. Judges lack access—or any right to demand access—to the full range of information, classified and otherwise, available to the president. They also lack the political accountability that would support taking risks with the security of the American people.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision represents an unprecedented judicial intrusion into the foreign-affairs authority of Congress and the president. The stakes transcend this particular executive order and even immigration issues generally. By removing restrictions on standing and other limitations on the exercise of judicial power, the Ninth Circuit would make the courts the ultimate arbiters of American foreign policy. The ruling risks creating both a constitutional and a security crisis. It must be reversed.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice constitutional and appellate law in Washington and served in the White House Counsel’s Office and U.S. Justice Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.