The Justice Department on Friday appealed to the Supreme Court a federal judge’s decision to allow grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and other relatives of people in the U.S. to circumvent the Trump administration’s travel ban policy.
The order, issued Thursday evening local time in Honolulu by Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii, deals a temporary blow to one of the president’s signature initiatives. It also prohibits the administration from blocking refugees with a commitment from a resettlement agency in the U.S., a move that could revive the flow of refugee admissions this year.
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In its appeal to the High Court, the Justice Department argues that Watson’s interpretation “empties the Court’s decision of meaning,” because it includes “not just ‘close’ family members, but virtually all family members.”
“Treating all of these relationships as ‘close familial relationship[s]’ reads the term ‘close’ out of the Court’s decision.”
Earlier Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised that the administration would “directly” appeal Watson’s ruling.
The decision was a victory for opponents of the travel ban, who hoped to broaden the universe of people who could bypass the president’s policy, which temporarily bars travelers from six majority-Muslim nations and suspends the refugee resettlement program.
The ruling prompted a rebuke from Sessions, who released a statement Friday afternoon accusing the district court of issuing “decisions that are entrusted to the Executive Branch, undermined national security, delayed necessary action, created confusion, and violated a proper respect for separation of powers.”
“By this decision, the district court has improperly substituted its policy preferences for the national security judgments of the Executive branch in a time of grave threats, defying both the lawful prerogatives of the Executive Branch and the directive of the Supreme Court,” Sessions said.
Sessions said the Justice Department intends to return to the Supreme Court to overturn the district court’s interpretation.
The Supreme Court issued an order on June 26 that allowed the embattled measure to go into effect, but included the caveat that affected travelers with “bona fide” ties to a person or entity in the U.S. should not be subject to the ban.
While the high court offered some guidance, it didn’t specifically list the categories of people or entities who might qualify as “bona fide.” When the Trump administration implemented the policy with a narrow definition that excluded grandparents and grandchildren, among others, advocates moved to take legal action.
In the realm of refugee resettlement, the administration stood by the contention that a connection to a resettlement agency alone would not meet the criteria to avoid the ban.
Judge Watson disagreed with those interpretations, however, and said the government’s guidance contradicted the Supreme Court’s order.
“Common sense, for instance, dictates that close family members be defined to include grandparents,” he wrote. “Indeed, grandparents are the epitome of close family members. The Government’s definition excludes them. That simply cannot be.”
The federal judge added that a refugee with a commitment from a resettlement agency met the standard for a “bona fide” relationship spelled out in the Supreme Court order.
“It is formal, it is a documented contract, it is binding, it triggers responsibilities and obligations, including compensation, it is issued specific to an individual refugee only when that refugee has been approved for entry by the Department of Homeland Security, and it is issued in the ordinary course, and historically has been for decades,” he wrote.
“Bona fide does not get any more bona fide than that.”
On Twitter, an attorney for the plaintiffs, the state of Hawaii and a local imam, celebrated the momentary legal win, which could be met with appeals by the federal government.
“Sweeping victory in #hawaiivstrump just now,” wrote Neal Katyal, going on to quote the order. “Court: ‘The government’s definition represents the antithesis of common sense.’”
A State Department spokesperson said Friday morning that officials “were reviewing the decision and will be in consultation with [the Justice Department] to ensure immediate implementation.”