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Court hands each side a partial victory in dispute over scope of travel ban

On the same day that it scheduled oral argument in the dispute over President Donald Trump’s March 6 executive order, the Supreme Court turned down a request by the federal government to clarify exactly what it meant when it said that individuals with a close family relationship could continue to apply for visas to enter the United States even while the freeze on new visas for travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries is in place. Today’s order left in place a ruling by a federal district judge in Hawaii that had defined the relationships more expansively than the government had wanted – to include, among others, grandparents and grandchildren. But the justices also put a portion of that lower-court ruling relating to refugees on hold while an intermediate federal appeals court reviews it.

The president’s March 6 order, often known as the “travel ban,” halted the issuance of new visas for travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen – and temporarily suspended the admission of refugees into the United States. Two different lower courts blocked the government from implementing the order, but on June 26 the Supreme Court allowed the government to go ahead and enforce it, with an exception for travelers and refugees who have a “credible claim” of a genuine relationship with an individual or institution in the United States.

The Court’s June 26 order led to litigation over the scope of the exception. The Trump administration insisted that it extended to parents (and stepparents), spouses (and fiancés or fiancées), sons and daughters (as well as stepchildren and sons- and daughters-in-law), and siblings, but not to a broader group of relatives such as grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, siblings-in-law, nieces and nephews, and cousins. But U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson agreed with the state of Hawaii that the second and broader group of relatives also have the kind of “close” family relationship that should allow them to apply for visas even while the travel ban is in effect. The justices today denied the federal government’s motion to clarify which relatives can apply for a visa, leaving Judge Watson’s more expansive definition in place.

However, the justices did grant the government’s request to put another portion of Judge Watson’s ruling on hold while the government goes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Judge Watson had ruled that, for purposes of the June 26 order, the freeze on the admission of refugees would not apply to refugees for whom the federal government had already entered into an agreement with an agency to help the refugees with resettlement after they enter the United States. The government had argued that the judge’s ruling went too far, because a resettlement agency does not actually have a relationship with the refugees it is assisting until they arrive in the United States, and that the ruling effectively rendered the limits imposed by the March 6 order meaningless. Now the 9th Circuit will weigh in on whether such refugees have enough of a connection to the United States to come here. Notably, three justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – indicated that they would have put all of Judge Watson’s ruling (rather than simply the part involving refugees) on hold until the 9th Circuit can rule on the government’s appeal.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Court hands each side a partial victory in dispute over scope of travel ban, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 19, 2017, 3:35 PM),