Supreme Court to issue final verdict on Trump travel ban
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide the legality of President Trump's ban on travelers from six mostly-Muslim nations, setting up what may be the final hurdle in a year-long battle over immigration, homeland security and religious discrimination.
The justices' decision to hear the case follows a series of lower court rulings against the third version of the ban, which is intended to block citizens of countries deemed security risks from entering the United States.
It marks the second time the high court has agreed to take up the case, filed by the state of Hawaii in conjunction with immigration rights groups. The first such court date was scuttled after the administration revised the program in September.
Throughout the lengthy legal battle, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court has loomed as Trump's best hope. Federal judges from coast to coast have declared the policy illegal or unconstitutional, ruling that Trump lacked authority to act unilaterally or that the ban discriminated against Muslims. The high court, however, has allowed most of the program to take effect.
In June, after federal appeals courts struck down the travel ban, the justices said citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen without close ties to the U.S. could be barred for up to 90 days while vetting procedures were reviewed. Travelers with a "bona fide" connection were allowed to enter.
After Trump changed the policy — subtracting Sudan, adding Chad, North Korea and Venezuela, setting separate criteria for each country and making it indefinite rather than temporary — federal courts again struck it down. But last month, the Supreme Court let it take effect while the case is appealed.
President Donald Trump's first year was one marked by chaos and controversy, as he cast aside norms and traditions and changed how the presidency is viewed at home and abroad. For anyone thinking year two might be different, think again.
The challenge accepted for oral argument is from Hawaii, where state officials have argued that the ban threatens their economy by blocking students, workers and others.
Federal district judge Derrick Watson ruled in October that the administration did not prove letting 150 million nationals from majority-Muslim countries follow regular immigration procedures would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States." Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed.
The ban also is being contested across the country, where a federal judge in Maryland ruled that it discriminates based on travelers' nationality. The 4th Circuit appeals court, based in Virginia, is due to rule soon on the administration's appeal of that decision.
Throughout the lower court hearings, Trump has been his own worst enemy. Judges have cited his derogatory tweets about Muslims as evidence that the ban was based on religious hostility.
Justice Department lawyers have contended that Trump's rhetoric is legally irrelevant. Instead, they have argued that the administration's worldwide review of nations' immigration procedures established a legal basis for banning travelers from those considered to be threats to national security.
"These restrictions are vital to ensuring that foreign nations comply with the minimum security standards required for the integrity of our immigration system and the security of our nation," the White House said following Watson's ruling last fall.
The president had used the same argument to freeze all refugee admissions for 120 days, specifically focusing on Syrian refugees as having a heightened possibility of terrorist ties. That program ended in October.
Trump relied on a provision of federal law that allows a president to bar admission to aliens that he declares are "detrimental to the interests of the United States." But in each case, federal judges have pointed to another federal law passed years later that prohibits immigration restrictions based solely on a person's country of birth.
That's why U.S. District Judge James Robart blocked Trump's first attempt at a travel ban a week after it went into effect last January. That was also the argument used by Watson when he struck down Trump's second attempt at a travel ban in March.
The high court's decision to hear the case sets up what will be a closely-watched hearing that should finally resolve the heated, controversial debate.
"The Supreme Court has the power to end a disgraceful chapter in American history, during which President Trump has ignored the Constitution and our fundamental values of religious freedom and fairness," said Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has participated in various lawsuits challenging the travel ban.
Contributing: Alan Gomez in Miami.