Wall Street Journal
By Aruna Viswanatha
April 20, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a radio interview this week played down the stature of a federal judge in Hawaii who suspended President Donald Trump’s revised executive order on visas and refugees.
During an appearance on the Mark Levin Show, Mr. Sessions said, “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the U.S. from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”
Late Thursday, a Justice Department spokesman clarified the attorney general’s statements after rebukes from Hawaiian officials and others. “Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific—a beautiful one where the Attorney General’s granddaughter was born,” the spokesman said.
“The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the president’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe,” he added.
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U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu, appointed by former President Barack Obama, was one of two judges who in March halted the revised order. The measure sought to suspend the U.S. refugee program and restrict entry to the U.S. for people from six Muslim-majority countries, moves the administration said would help fight terrorism.
Judge Watson, in suspending the order nationwide on March 15, said Mr. Trump likely engaged in unconstitutional religious discrimination in issuing the order. A federal judge in Maryland entered a similar injunction, and both are scheduled for hearings before appeals courts in coming weeks.
A third federal judge in Virginia has said the revised executive order would likely withstand legal scrutiny.
In the radio interview, Mr. Sessions lambasted the judges who ruled against the administration, referring to their attribution of discriminatory motives to Mr. Trump. “The judges don’t get to psychoanalyze the president to see if the order he issues is lawful,” the attorney general said. “It’s either lawful or it’s not.”
“We’ve got cases moving in the very, very liberal Ninth Circuit, who, they’ve been hostile to the order,” Sessions said. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, blocked Mr. Trump’s original order, and it is scheduled to hear the administration’s appeal of Judge Watson’s ruling on May 15.
“We won a case in Virginia recently that was a nicely-written order that just demolished, I thought, all the arguments that some of the other people have been making,” Mr. Sessions added. “We are confident that the president will prevail on appeal and particularly in the Supreme Court.”
Federal judges have the authority to take actions such as Judge Watson’s, covering the entire country, if they believe a government measure or action is unlawful and that it would be unworkable to limit their ruling to a specific district. A federal judge in Texas, for example, blocked nationwide Mr. Obama’s efforts to grant privileges to undocumented parents of American children.
Federal judges can also issue more limited edicts that affect only to their home region.
Mr. Sessions’ comments were widely picked up on social media after they were reported by CNN on Thursday. Officials from Hawaii reacted particularly sharply to Mr. Sessions’ characterization of their home state.
Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, wrote on his Twitter account, “Mr. Attorney General: You voted for that judge. And that island is called Oahu. It’s my home. Have some respect.”
His colleague in the Senate, Democrat Mazie Hirono, wrote on her Twitter account, “Hey Jeff Sessions, this #IslandinthePacific has been the 50th state for going on 58 years. And we won’t succumb to your dog whistle politics.”
Mr. Trump has on occasion denigrated judges whose rulings he disagrees with, particularly on immigration.
After U.S. District Judge James Robart in Washington state, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled against Mr. Trump’s first executive order on immigration, the president referred to him as “this so-called judge” and said his ruling was “ridiculous and will be overturned!”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump criticized a judge overseeing civil fraud lawsuits against Trump University, saying Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict’’ in presiding over the litigation because he was of Mexican heritage. The judge was born in the U.S.
After the election, Mr. Trump reached a $25 million settlement to end the litigation without admitting wrongdoing.
Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com
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