You may be wondering…
Now that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have said they will abide by the court orders banning implementation of the Executive Order (EO) regarding travellers from particular countries, why are the lawyers still at the airports?
First and foremost, because the potential for abuse or, to be more charitable, differing opinions as to what the CBP should and should not do about these travelers is still very real. We are watching, we understand the legal system, and bureaucracy does not intimidate us. Attorneys are great observers and monitors in this situation. Having these teams in place at the airports is also a good way to get information about how travelers are being treated at foreign airports by the CBP. They have agents at many international airports, and may try to intercept people from boarding in the first place. Because airlines can be fined if they let people board flights to the US who aren’t eligible to enter, they are subject to pressure from the government.
Secondly, because there is still a great deal of fear, doubt and confusion in the minds of the general public and particularly in travelers from other countries who don’t know what’s going on. They hear conflicting reports, they see wild things on Facebook, and they’re scared. Again, a calm, purposeful group of people in suits explaining things to them is a valuable resource. We won’t be able to indefinitely sustain an operation just to reassure people, but it’s certainly part of the purpose.
Finally, because this organization is valuable training and provides continuity in case the EO is reinstated. With one partial exception, all the court orders are TRO. This stands for Temporary Restraining Order. Emphasis on the Temporary. This is how a court stops people from doing something, pursuant to the request of someone bringing suit, that it seems very likely that the person suing will win in court about. They’re hard to get, and if you do get one, it’s very likely that you’ll win and get a PI – a Permanent Injunction. In fact, that’s literally one of the requirements to get one in the first place. (Another is that some kind of irreparable harm has to be imminent if the court waits for the suit to be finished. “Being sent back to a country where you’re in danger” definitely counts.) But it is not automatic or assured. One or more of the courts which have issued TRO may allow them to lapse and/or find that the government was in fact entitled to do what the EO says, which means no PI will issue.
Even if the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the other people and organizations do get PI, the decisions of the District Courts which are granting them – those are the trial courts at the Federal level – are subject to appeal. First it goes to a Federal Court of Appeals, where it will be heard by a three-judge panel. That panel can:
- Sustain the order (and keep the PI,)
- Reverse it (and negate the PI) or…
- Remand it to the District Court for reconsideration (which means that the PI will likely be negated, but the District Court will get a chance to re-institute it if they do things “right” this time.) They can also just refuse to hear the appeal, which in practical terms is the same thing as sustaining the District Court’s decision.
Whatever happens in the Court of Appeals, the party who loses can ask for a hearing “en banc,” which means that instead of a three-judge panel all of the judges on the Court of Appeals hear the case and vote again, or they can appeal directly to the Supreme Court. If they get an en banc hearing, whoever loses that can then also appeal to the Supreme Court. At any stage of this, the order can be sustained, reversed, and/or remanded.
Things get really interesting when you find out that each Court of Appeals oversees several states, but that the decisions of one Court of Appeals are not binding on the Courts of Appeals that oversee other states. Only a ruling from the Supreme Court binds all lower courts. So it’s entirely possible that in the very near future, we could have some states (and the airports and Customs officers operating there) where the ban is in force, and other states where it is not. (This is called a “circuit split,” and it’s one of the main reasons cases make it to the Supreme Court. But that takes a while.)
So there are a lot of things that could happen which could put the ban right back in force in some places, or everywhere. If the airport legal clinics completely dissipate, they will have to be rebuilt from scratch if any of those things happen. So the prudent thing to do, and the plan so far as I know, is to keep them operating, even at a lower level, until we have a better understanding of how things are ultimately going to shake out. So please, keep listening, watching, and volunteering if you can. Donations, even small ones, will be greatly appreciated on an ongoing basis for the foreseeable future. Some groups need meals, some need tech, and many organizations will need money to defer expenses. You can follow @Helpthelawyers for links and information.
I know that every single expression of support, from lunch for twenty to a homemade cookie or just a handshake, is very encouraging to the people working in those airports, and everywhere else. Thanks for your support.