A showdown is looming between the administration of US President Donald Trump and sections of the judiciary after two federal judges blocked his second attempt to ban travel from parts of the Muslim world.
Just hours before the President's latest travel order was scheduled to take effect yesterday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a nationwide temporary restraining order on Wednesday evening. Later, a second judge, in Maryland, also blocked its implementation.
Late on Wednesday, Mr Trump hit back during a previously scheduled rally in Nashville,Tennessee, at what he called "unprecedented judicial overreach" and vowed to fight it. "We're going to take our case as far as it needs to go, including all the way up to the Supreme Court," he told a cheering crowd in a campaign-style rally. "We're going to win. We're going to keep our citizens safe."
Five Republican-appointed judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals - who may find themselves hearing the government's appeal against the rulings - signalled their support in an unusual, unsolicited statement saying "the President's decision was well within the powers of the presidency".
"As this moves up the court ladder, it is somewhat more likely this executive order will be validated," Professor Glenn Altschuler of Cornell University told The Straits Times on the phone. "If it is not, then it will be a monumental blow to the Trump administration's agenda. However, that is less likely."
The judge in Hawaii, Judge Derrick Watson, cited evidence of "religious animus" behind the travel ban - the Trump administration's second, "watered down" version, in his own words in Nashville. His first attempt at a ban issued last month sparked protests and was also stalled by a federal court.
The latest executive order issued on March 6, imposed a 90-day suspension of new visas for citizens of six majority-Muslim nations. It also suspended the United States' refugee programme for 120 days and set a cap of 50,000 refugees a year after that, down from 110,000 under the Barack Obama administration.
The ban was more specific, laying out a national security argument, and reducing the number of countries from seven to six, leaving out Iraq, which had been named in the previous ban. The countries specified the second time around were Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
But Judge Watson said there was "questionable evidence supporting the government's national security motivations" and referred to previous statements by Mr Trump as evidence that he intended to target Muslims - which would be unconstitutional.
The judge specified a press release issued by Mr Trump in December 2015, which stated: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."
The ruling also cited former New York mayor and Trump ally Rudolph Giuliani, who after the first executive order told a TV network that when Mr Trump first announced it, he called it a "Muslim ban".
The American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully challenged the first travel ban in court, and filed the case in Maryland, said in a statement: "Trump's administration has made clear that they will continue to target and discriminate against Muslims, refugees, immigrants" and others and sanctioning a "culture of fear, hate, and violence".
Department of Justice spokesman Sarah Isgur Flores, however, said in a statement that the department "strongly disagrees with the federal district court's ruling, which is flawed both in reasoning and in scope".
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Trump slams judicial overreach. http://str.sg/47wQ