Donald Trump’s Plan to Bar Foreign Muslims Might Survive a Lawsuit


December 9, 2015

WASHINGTON — When Donald J. Trump called on Monday for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” many legal scholars were aghast and said that such a ban would certainly be struck down by courts as blatantly unconstitutional.

December 9, 2015

WASHINGTON — When Donald J. Trump called on Monday for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” many legal scholars were aghast and said that such a ban would certainly be struck down by courts as blatantly unconstitutional.

Donald J. Trump at a campaign event in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., on Monday.

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

Several legal scholars who specialize in immigration, international and constitutional law said a policy of excluding all foreign Muslims from visiting the United States would still be “ludicrously discriminatory and overwrought,” as Gerald L. Neuman, a Harvard Law School professor, put it. But he said that it was far from clear that the Supreme Court would block it.

Under a provision of immigration law, Congress has already delegated to the president broad power to issue a proclamation indefinitely blocking “the entry of any class of aliens into the United States” that he or she thinks would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” No president has ever used that power in such a sweeping way, but the text provides a potential statutory basis for a President Trump to carry out his plan, specialists said.

Still, if Mr. Trump won the White House and invoked that power as a justification to bar all foreign Muslims, people affected by that policy inside the United States — like a person seeking reunification with a family member, or a university that wanted to invite someone to come speak — could file a lawsuit challenging it.

Several legal questions would be raised by such a policy.

First, as a matter of international law, a treaty the United States has ratified, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, bars laws that discriminate against people because of their religion. It protects “all persons,” not just citizens of a member state.

But any lawsuit invoking that provision of the treaty would face an uphill struggle, the specialists said, because Congress has not acted to make that provision enforceable by domestic courts. So even if Mr. Trump’s policy clearly violated the provision, it is doubtful that the Supreme Court would decide that the treaty provided the judiciary with authority to strike the policy down, the specialists said.

Second, as a matter of domestic constitutional law, barring foreigners from visiting — or even barring the return of green card-holding lawful permanent residents — would be subject to a different legal test.

Because decisions about which foreigners to permit into the country are closely related to issues of foreign policy, the courts have long adopted an extremely deferential approach to reviewing such policies by Congress and the executive branch.

Indeed, for most of American history, including a famous 1889 Supreme Court decision upholding a statute passed by Congress that barred all Chinese people from coming to the United States, courts would not even review such decisions. That changed in the 1970s, when the Supreme Court began holding that it could review them.

But even after that change, the court adopted an extraordinarily solicitous standard: So long as the government cites a reason that sounds legitimate on its face for barring a foreigner from entering the country, the justices will uphold it without further scrutiny.

In practice, since establishing that standard, the Supreme Court has never overturned a decision to deny entry to someone.

David A. Martin, a University of Virginia law professor who was deputy general counsel to the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 and 2010, noted that as recently as last May, in Kerry v. Din, the court reaffirmed its commitment to that standard in a 5-to-4 ruling. It dismissed a lawsuit by an American citizen who challenged the government’s decision to deny a visa to her husband, an Afghan. The government said it had denied the visa because of unspecified terrorism concerns, and the majority of court said that was good enough without further scrutiny.

Still, the specialists said, Mr. Trump’s proposal to block the entrance of over a billion Muslims on the basis of their religion is so extreme that it was possible a Supreme Court majority might be willing to strike it down despite its very deferential standard for scrutinizing such policies.

“There is some cause for optimism that eventually this would get struck down by a court,” said Cristina Rodríguez, who teaches immigration law and constitutional law at Yale Law School. But she also questioned whether Americans would tolerate such a policy before a case got that far.

“The bigger question is what happens in the political arena before that, and do constitutional values influence political debate?” she said. “This would be a test case because it would be so blatantly contrary to our constitutional traditions that it’s hard to imagine that it would get to a full-blown case. But I could be underestimating the people supporting Donald Trump at this point.”

Courtesy: NY Times