A federal judge in Hawaii has blocked the major provisions of President Trump's revised ban on refugee resettlement and travel from six predominantly Muslim countries, hours before the executive order was to take effect.
The decision struck down, at least temporarily, the Trump administration's attempt to pause all refugee resettlement for 120 days and block citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days.
U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson said his ruling applies nationwide. It appears to set the stage for a battle in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which last month upheld a ruling blocking Trump's original travel ban.
Ruling separately in a Maryland federal court Thursday, U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang issued a more limited order halting the travel ban. Chuang's ruling focused on blocking the ban's provision that paused immigration from the six countries.
Speaking at a rally in Nashville on Wednesday after the court decision landed, Trump said it was a "terrible ruling" that "makes us look weak." He called it "unprecedented judicial overreach" and vowed to "take our case as far as it needs to go, including all the way up to the Supreme Court."
Trump said the new order was simply a "watered-down" version of the prior one.
"I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way," he told the roaring crowd.
The case, brought by Hawaii Atty. Gen. Douglas Chin, argued that the latest travel ban would have "profound" and "detrimental" effects on residents, businesses and universities. In its complaint, the state of Hawaii also said the executive order discriminates against Muslims and violates the equal protection and due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
Lawyers for the state also argued that the order illegally discriminates based upon nationality.
Arguing that Hawaii residents would be unfairly affected by the ban, lawyers cited the example of Ismail Elshikh, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is the imam of the Muslim Assn. of Hawaii. His mother-in-law is a national of Syria and would be barred from seeing her son-in-law.
In his 43-page order, Watson, who was nominated to the bench by President Obama, repeatedly referred to statements by Trump and his associates during the campaign and afterward as evidence that the executive order was intended to restrict Muslim immigration. Watson wrote that despite the ban's "stated secular purpose," Trump's own words acted against him by marking the travel order as a fulfillment of the president's campaign promise to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.
"The illogic of the government's contention is palpable," Watson wrote. "The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed."
Government lawyers have argued that the travel restrictions did not amount to a Muslim ban, as opponents have said, since they only would apply to a fraction of the world's Muslim population.
The Department of Justice pushed back against the Hawaii court late Wednesday but did not indicate its next steps in the case.
"The Department of Justice strongly disagrees with the federal district court's ruling, which is flawed both in reasoning and in scope," it said in a statement. "The president's executive order falls squarely within his lawful authority in seeking to protect our nation's security, and the department will continue to defend this executive order in the courts."
The Hawaii hearing was among four court proceedings Wednesday in which the travel ban was challenged. There were two hearings in Seattle and another in Greenbelt, Md.
Lawyers challenging the ban — which was scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time Thursday — asked judges to put it on hold while the courts decided its constitutionality.
Department of Justice attorneys argued that the travel ban was necessary for national security and that it was well within the president's powers to restrict immigration to protect the nation. The aim, they said, was to screen out visitors from countries affected by terrorism until more stringent vetting measures could be put in place.
Government lawyers said that the travel ban, a revised version of the Jan. 27 executive order that was blocked by federal courts, was modified enough to remove any legal concerns.
Democratic state officials and civil rights groups cheered the Hawaii ruling.
"It appeared the judge was not willing to buy the federal government's contention that they just need to stick to the neutral language" on religion, said Chin, the Hawaii attorney general, at a news conference with Gov. David Ige.
"A win for Hawaii is a win for all of us," Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson said outside the courthouse in Seattle where a judge heard two other challenges to the travel restrictions. "Trump is piling up defeat after defeat after defeat. And we'll all be here working to make sure his streak continues."
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement the group welcomed the Hawaii decision as "confirmation of the strength of our nation's system of checks and balances.… We urge the Trump administration to scrap this Muslim ban entirely because it disrespects both the Constitution and America's longstanding tradition of religious freedom and inclusion."
His group has also sued over the travel restrictions in a separate case that is pending.
The original order spurred tens of thousands of visa cancellations, chaos at U.S. international airports and dozens of lawsuits.
That order stopped refugee resettlement from all countries for 120 days — and from Syria indefinitely — and banned citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for 90 days while the government was to review its vetting procedures.
A federal judge in Seattle halted that order in February after hearing arguments that it was discriminatory against Muslims and negatively impacted Washington state's universities, businesses and residents. His decision was upheld by a motions panel of three judges in the 9th Circuit.
The new order tried to address court concerns by removing a preference for refugees who are religious minorities and giving exemptions from the ban to green-card holders and those who already have valid visas.
It also removed Iraq from the list of countries whose citizens would be barred. Iraq, as a U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State, took deep offense to a blanket ban against its citizens. The Trump administration says it had reviewed vetting procedures in Iraq and was satisfied with them.
Legal experts had predicted the new travel ban would be tougher to fight in court because of the president's broad authority over immigration enforcement and national security when it comes to noncitizens and those without visas.
UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky described the new order as "certainly better drafted than the prior version" but said courts could find it to run "afoul of the 1965 Immigration Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin."
"Based on prior statements of President Trump that Christians would be allowed in, this still can be challenged as a Muslim ban," he said. "Put simply, it corrects some of the problems courts found with the prior executive order, but many of the serious problems remain."
Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a Justice Department official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, said that although he disagreed with the new travel rules, they were "clearly more defensible" than the prior ones and "should have survived review in the District Court in Hawaii."
"The revised order was a conscientious effort to meet the objections of the 9th Circuit," he said.
"The revised order is not drawn along religious lines; it is irrational to view it as a Muslim ban."
Arguments in court Wednesday centered on the federal government's argument that the order is a matter of national security, questions about the potential harm it could cause, and who has legal standing to sue.
The Maryland lawsuit — filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project on behalf of immigrants from Syria, Somalia and Iran whose spouses and families are in the middle of the visa approval process — argued that the new order would prevent family reunification and discriminate on the basis of religion.
During nearly two hours of arguments, Chuang closely questioned both sides, pushing the government to explain how the reworked measure would address previous legal challenges and the plaintiffs to explain when a court can step into a matter of national security.
"The government says the executive order is to protect the public," he said. "On what basis can I overrule that?"
By Thursday morning, the judge had issued his opinion, which said there were "strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose for the travel ban." Chuang, an Obama nominee, suggested that Trump may have intended to discriminate against Muslims.
The plaintiffs in one of the Seattle cases are immigrants from Somalia and Syria whose family members have pending visa applications. Their suit pointed to campaign statements by Trump — such as his vow to suspend any Muslims from entering the U.S. — as evidence that the ban was intended to target Muslims.
In the other Seattle case heard Wednesday, the plaintiff was Washington state and the judge was James Robart.
He is the same judge who on Feb. 3 ordered a national halt to the first travel ban in a case brought by Washington and Minnesota.
On Wednesday, he declined the states' request to extend his restraining order against the first ban to apply to the new order.
Robart said the two orders were too different to be treated the same but said he would allow the state and several others that have joined it to file an amended complaint in its case to challenge the new travel order
Times staff writer Laura King in Greenbelt, Md., and special correspondent Rick Anderson in Seattle contributed to this report.
March 16, 8:15 a.m.: This article has been updated with information on the decision in the Maryland case.
7:55 p.m.: This article was updated to include reaction to the court decision and background on the legal battles over the travel ban.