Trump calls judges 'so political' as travel ban faces hearing

US President Donald Trump defends his immigration ban in a speech to law enforcement officers and criticizes the courts as being "so political".
US President Donald Trump speaks during the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, US, on Feb 8, 2017.
US President Donald Trump speaks during the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) Winter Meeting in Washington, DC, US, on Feb 8, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOOMBERG

Appeals court motion a media event as judges grill lawyers for both sides

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump has lashed out at federal judges, calling them "so political" as an appeals court mulls over whether to reinstate his controversial travel ban on refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"I think our security is at risk today," he told a meeting of sheriffs from around the nation yesterday, as he defended his executive order, which was blocked nationwide by the federal courts a week after it went into effect.

"I don't ever want to call a court biased, so I won't call it biased and we haven't had a decision yet. But courts seem to be so political, and it would be so great for our justice system if they would be able to read a statement and do what is right," Mr Trump said, adding that even "a bad high school student" would know that he was right.

He was responding to a hearing on Tuesday at which appeals court judges sharply questioned the lawyer defending Mr Trump's travel ban for more than an hour.

The hearing, which in other circumstances might have been dry legal back-and-forth, was a media event, played out by disembodied voices on a conference call that was streamed live. More than 130,000 tuned in via YouTube alone.

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The judges were better prepared. I think the court was eager to have great arguments. I think the court left the case concluding they were going to have to do it themselves.

PROFESSOR BRUCE ROGOW, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The issue at hand was whether a freeze won by two states could continue to block Mr Trump's executive order, issued without warning on Jan 27 and said by the President to be vital to national security. But there was a quick escalation from that narrow matter into constitutional and procedural questions about the power of a president to exclude people he considers threats.

The grilling of both sides was rapid-fire, with Mr August Flentje, representing the Department of Justice, facing harsher questioning than his adversary. He appeared flustered at times, saying at one point: "I am not sure I am convincing the court."

Mr Noah Purcell, the Washington solicitor-general representing the states of Washington and Minnesota, also came under the gun, challenged about evidence that the ban discriminates on the basis of religion.

Judge Richard Clifton said he was "not entirely persuaded", noting that the order affected only a small share of the world's Muslims.

A decision by the three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco may come this week. The jurists gave no clear sense of how they would rule. They could leave in place a temporary restraining order issued on Feb 3 by a federal judge in Seattle that put Mr Trump's restrictions on hold, lift it or retain some of it.

Whatever the ruling, it is almost certain to be appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Mr Trump's weighing in on the matter even as it was in the court's hands, however, raised concern. Immediately after his remarks, former deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken told CNN that he found the President's words "deeply troubling".

"The President put himself above the law," he said. "He suggested that there is no judicial review of what the executive does", adding that this was "wrong and dangerous".

"He called yesterday's hearing disgraceful when, in fact, it was a tribute to our democracy," Mr Blinken added.

There are three key issues: Whether the states have a legal right to attack the administration's immigration orders, whether the ban discriminates against Muslims, and whether the people of Washington and Minnesota have been harmed directly.

The two states contend that Mr Trump's order is unconstitutional and hurts their residents and businesses, and that the President "unleashed chaos" by signing it.

Taking their side in friend- of-the-court briefs are more than 120 firms, including Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

The three judges fired off questions on those and more, citing case law, frequently interrupting the lawyers, sometimes sounding impatient.

"The judges were better prepared," said Professor Bruce Rogow, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has argued 11 times before the US Supreme Court. "I think the court was eager to have great arguments. I think the court left the case concluding they were going to have to do it themselves."

THE WASHINGTON POST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Trump calls judges 'so political' as travel ban faces hearing'. Print Edition | Subscribe