Supreme Court upholds President Trump’s travel ban against majority-Muslim countries

WASHINGTON — A deeply divided Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s immigration travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries Tuesday as a legitimate exercise of executive branch authority.

The 5-4 ruling reverses a series of lower court decisions that had struck down the ban as Illegal or unconstitutional. It hands a major victory to Trump, who initiated the battle to ban travelers a week after assuming office last year. It was a defeat for Hawaii and other states that had challenged the action, as well as immigration rights groups.

Trump hailed the decision as vindicating his controversial immigration policies, after first tweeting seven simple words: “SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS TRUMP TRAVEL BAN. Wow!”

“In this era of worldwide terrorism and extremist movements bent on harming innocent civilians, we must properly vet those coming into our country,” the president said. “This ruling is also a moment of profound vindication following months of hysterical commentary from the media and Democratic politicians who refuse to do what it takes to secure our border and our country.”

The president had vowed to ban Muslims during the 2016 presidential campaign and continued his attacks on Twitter after his election. But the high court said those statements did not constitute evidence of religious discrimination.

Chief Justice John Roberts issued the opinion, supported by the court’s other four conservatives — a majority that has held through a dozen 5-4 cases this term. He said the ban’s restrictions are limited to countries previously designated by Congress or prior administrations as posing national security risks. And he noted that Trump’s latest version followed a worldwide review process by several government agencies.

“The proclamation is squarely within the scope of presidential authority,” the chief justice said. Claims of religious bias against Muslims do not hold up, he said, against “a sufficient national security justification.”

However, Roberts said, “We express no view on the soundness of the policy.” And Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a brief concurring opinion, referred obliquely to the potential relevance of Trump’s statements about religion.

“There are numerous instances in which the statements and actions of government officials are not subject to judicial scrutiny or intervention,” Kennedy wrote. “That does not mean those officials are free to disregard the Constitution and the rights it proclaims and protects.”

The court’s four liberal justices dissented, and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor read excerpts from the bench, a rare occurrence. Breyer, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, found “evidence of anti-religious bias” that he said was worth a second go-round at the federal district court level.  

Sotomayor’s dissent was lengthier and more strident, and she spoke in court for some 20 minutes. Quoting extensively Trump’s words during and after the 2016 campaign, she wrote: “A reasonable observer would conclude that the proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.” She was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“What began as a policy explicitly ‘calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ has since morphed into a ‘proclamation’ putatively based on national-security concerns,” Sotomayor said. “But this new window dressing cannot conceal an unassailable fact: the words of the president and his advisers create the strong perception that the proclamation is contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus against Islam and its followers.”

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Richard Wolf