On January 27th, President Trump signed an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The order bars Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely, and it bars refugees generally for 120 days. The order also blocks citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days. And chaos ensued. Scenes from airports across the country were heart-breaking, as people were kept from reuniting with relatives; protesters galvanized; the acting Attorney General was fired for instructing the Department of Justice not to enforce the order. There are at the moment 13 lawsuits challenging the order, with many more sure to come.
Unsurprisingly, polling on the issue breaks down along party lines. According to a recent Reuters poll, 51 % of Republicans strongly agree with the actions of their president; 53% of Democrats strongly disagreed.
One question looms large above all others: could these bans possibly be constitutional?
It depends on who you ask. The bans are either in violation of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause, or else they fall within the plenary power doctrine, an area of the law that is understood to confer upon the political branches almost unfettered power, free from judicial review.
Thinking about the question in this way, however, misses the mark.
What do we mean when we ask whether something is unconstitutional? We generally use the term in an ontological sense, as if the Constitution exists in Platonic form and we can both decipher its meaning and apply to any situation. Thus, to the question whether the President’s actions are constitutional, we turn reflexively to the document and the prior meanings we ascribe to it. The courts need only recognize and apply these prior meanings.
But this is not the right question. The question is not whether existing law stands in the way of the President’s actions. Rather, the question is whether the federal courts will choose to stand up to the President. If and when they do, the rest is easy.
I am not encouraged. Think about the political context, and talks of nuclear option for the Senate confirmation process. Think also about the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and the President’s response to the court decisions that followed his executive orders. Think about Terror. The War on Terror.
Will the court’s stand up to the President? I don’t know. What I do know is that nothing in the Constitution will help federal judges answer that question.