On Monday, a Ninth Circuit panel mostly upheld the preliminary injunction against the Trump travel ban. Notably, the court did three things which were ostensibly designed with an inevitable Supreme Court showdown in mind: 1) it did not reach the constitutional issues, instead relying entirely on statutory grounds; 2) it struck down the ban without relying on Trump’s campaign statements, and 3) it slightly narrowed the scope of the injunction. These are all important, as will be set forth below.
I. Taking The (Statutory) Road Less Travelled
Much of the buzz about the travel ban has dealt with its constitutionality – whether it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, the travel ban has also been challenged on statutory grounds. While the Fourth Circuit’s ruling addressed only the constitutional issues and did not reach the statutory issues (as did the Ninth Circuit panel in the travel ban 1.0 case), the Ninth Circuit’s ruling this week did just the opposite. It was the first appeals court decision on either travel ban to address only the statutory arguments.
This is important because it lets the Supreme Court do three things that it loves to do: let issues “percolate” in the lower courts before taking them, exercise constitutional avoidance, and avoid sweeping devisions with unwanted or unintended consequences.
A. It’s Time For The Percolator
First, the court loves to let lower courts weigh in on big issues first. For some reason, every Supreme Court analyst and their mother refers to this as lower court “percolation”. Essentially, what lower court “percolation” means is that the Supreme Court does not like taking cases until at least one appeals court decides it first. It is quite likely that the Supreme Court would have wanted the thoughts of the lower courts on the statutory issue, but prior to this week no appeals court had decided either travel ban on statutory grounds. That has now changed, the statutory issue has been percolated, and the Supreme Court is now ready for its morning coffee.
B. Avoidance Like the Plague
Second, the court loves to avoid deciding constitutional issues when it can. Similarly, the court typically seeks to avoid controversial or deeply political issues, which it fears may affect its legitimacy. A ruling on statutory grounds would let the Supreme Court avoid a sweeping constitutional ruling and also partially mitigate the inevitable political fallout from its decision. Thus, the Ninth Circuit has provided the Supreme Court with a roadmap to strike down the travel ban while doing so on narrow, more palatable terms.
C. “We Write Some Words…”
Relatedly, the Supreme Court also tends to avoid issuing sweeping opinions with unforeseen or unwanted ramifications beyond the facts at hand. As Justice Breyer stated during oral argument in another case this year, “[w]e write some words…. The problem is other people will read those words, and there are all kinds of things that happen…” This is the Supreme Court’s general concern in a nutshell – that its rationale will be applied to circumstances well beyond just the facts of the particular case being decided.
A broad ruling on the constitutional issue would then apply to many other contexts, from subsequent presidents’ immigration decisions to equal protection claims generally. Trump’s presidency, obviously, is quite different than most presidencies; the Supreme Court will not want its opinion here to hamstring future presidents in engaging in run-of-the-mill immigration decisions or national security determinations. Essentially, the trick is to strike down the travel ban (if it is so inclined), while limiting the applicability of this ruling to different contexts. That is easier said than done.
II. Trump’s Campaign Statements
The issue of unwanted consequences also arises when discussing Trump’s campaign statements. Unlike the Fourth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit did not rely on Trump’s campaign statements in striking down the travel ban. There is a very real concern that the court’s reliance on Trump’s campaign statements will open the doors to using campaign statements against public officials in all sorts of litigation pertaining to government decision-making. The Supreme Court will be loathe to weaponize campaign statements by political candidates, and it will avoid using Trump’s campaign statements entirely if it can. To that end, the Ninth Circuit omitted such references. Again, this signals to the Supreme Court that it can strike down the ban while staying out of the thorniest part of the thicket.
III. Narrowing the Injunction
Lastly, the Ninth Circuit narrowed the scope of the lower court’s injunction, in that it now permits the White House to conduct an internal review of visa vetting procedures. This review served as the facial reason for the ban, which was to last 90 days (and 120 days for the Syrian refugee program) while the review was conducted.
Today, the clock begins ticking anew. At this point, there is no evidence that such a review ever began in the first place, but the government may have gotten lucky when it was barred from doing so by the District of Hawaii. Now, that excuse melts away, and it will be incumbent on the government to begin that vetting review in earnest. In the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs will certainly argue that if the ban was really about the review process – and not just pretext for banning Muslims – then the review would have begun immediately and would already be concluded. If there is little or no evidence that such a review has taken place at the time of Supreme Court briefing or oral argument, then the government’s stated rationale for the ban will be destroyed.
This aspect of the ruling is also important because keeping the injunction as-is would have certainly given the Supreme Court a good reason to grant certiorari. Barring the President from internally reviewing visa vetting procedures – which does not adversely affect anyone in and of itself – was something that didn’t make much sense. Although the Supreme Court is likely going to grant cert anyway, there is now one fewer reason to do so.