It’s Too Late For The Supreme Court, But Lower Courts Can Still Check Trump

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By Nancy Gertner

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s final writing as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, his concurrence in the travel ban case, was a cri de coeur. It simply, even pathetically, lamented the court’s limited role in controlling a lawless executive.

Throwing up his hands, he wrote that the acts of government officials often are not subject to judicial scrutiny, while adding that this “does not mean those officials are free to disregard the Constitution and the rights it protects. The oath is not restricted to the actions that the Judiciary can correct.”

Wrong message, Mr. Justice.

Even though the travel ban the court upheld is not related to the asylum crisis — the travel prohibition is about immigrants coming here for all sorts of reasons, not asylum seekers fleeing violence in their country — to President Donald Trump, it does not matter. The high court’s decision is perceived as a vindication of all of his immigration policies, no matter how lawless, cruel and dysfunctional. And with Kennedy’s concurrence, it risks signaling that the judiciary will abdicate its own obligations to uphold our country’s laws and ideals.

Take “zero tolerance.” When asylum-seekers so much as step across the border, they are violating the law, according to this administration, even if they immediately present claims to an immigration official. The rule of law, the president insists, requires the prosecution of all crimes, no matter how trivial. This from the same man who pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio after he was found guilty of flouting a court order to stop racial profiling.

Then there is the even more absurd claim that family separation deters asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S. Asylum-seekers will not be deterred by Trump’s cruelty; they have already decided to risk a dangerous trek from Central America to the U.S. because they believe their families will be killed if they stay. In fact, the number of asylum requests has increased notwithstanding Trump’s policies; its driving force is violence in asylum-seekers’ home countries, not U.S. immigration policy.

Nor are these asylum-seekers miscreants intent on defrauding the U.S. or committing crimes. This year, fewer than 1 percent of those apprehended have presented claims found to be false. Studies show that in general, undocumented immigrants — of whom asylum-seekers are a part — commit fewer crimes than those born in this country.

Worse, Trump now wants to deport asylum-seekers without any review. We don’t need more judges, he says, just more border cops. Where is the rule of law here?

The Constitution’s due process requirement applies to anyone physically in the U.S., whether they have arrived legally or not. Likewise, international law requires us to review whether asylum-seekers’ claims of violence are credible, and if they qualify, let them in. And obviously, this government should not threaten to take children from their parents unless the families agree to voluntary deportation. That’s not just the absence of due process; it’s the presence of extortion. 

If Kennedy signaled his belief that the court has very limited power to control an errant president, his putative replacement, federal Circuit Coury Judge Brett Kavanaugh, may well be worse. He does not just lament court’s limited power to control a president, he embraces it.

Kavanaugh has a particularly robust view of presidential power in certain areas — significantly, national security or immigration. In Klayman v. Obama, the D.C. Circuit ruled against a challenge to the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program on technical grounds, in a per curiam decision ― meaning an opinion of the entire court and not any individual judge. Kavanaugh, however, felt the need to file a concurring opinion.

Rather than simply signing on the decision, he went out of his way to make the breadth of the president’s national security power clear: Even if the collection program were the functional equivalent of a search, the government did not need to seek a warrant from a judge because the president said the program was necessary to combat terrorism and that need outweighed any impact on privacy.

Echoing Kennedy’s lament in the travel ban case, Kavanaugh added that while the chief executive and Congress may want to limit the program, until they do the judiciary was literally without the power to control it. Not only was the door to a constitutional challenge was firmly shut; he wanted to make certain that everyone knew it.

But there are judges who are not simply wringing their hands about the limits of judicial review over immigration issues, like Kennedy did, or who are bent on deferring to the president whenever he intones a national security rationale, as Kavanaugh might well do. They are working each day to prevent this president from running roughshod over the Constitution ― not just in the executive orders that he promulgates but in the way his orders and policies are implemented on the ground, in the day-to-day encounters on our borders.

A federal judge in California, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a nationwide injunction temporarily stopping the Trump administration from separating children from their parents at the border. Another in D.C. blocked the systematic detention of migrants who show credible evidence that they were fleeing persecution in their home countries, halting a practice that is an obvious and unlawful attempt to deter them and others from seeking refuge here.

There will surely be others, because these judges ― like the president ― also swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. But for them, unlike the president, it is not an empty promise.

Nancy Gertner served as a Massachusetts United States District Court judge from 1994 to 2011, when she retired  to teach at Harvard Law School. Her first memoir, In Defense of Women, was published in 2011, and a judicial memoir, Incomplete Sentences, will be published in 2019.