The Corner

Law & the Courts

Judge Niemeyer’s Dissent

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent from the Fourth Circuit’s decision against the travel ban does a nice job of explaining what’s wrong with the majority’s decision to base its ruling on its reading of President Trump’s motives. I’m going to quote the whole discussion of the issue:

The majority’s new rule, which considers statements made by candidate Trump during the presidential campaign to conclude that the Executive Order does not mean what it says, is fraught with danger and impracticability. Apart from violating all established rules for construing unambiguous texts — whether statutes, regulations, executive orders, or, indeed, contracts — reliance on campaign statements to impose a new meaning on an unambiguous Executive Order is completely strange to judicial analysis.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned against “judicial psychoanalysis of a drafter’s heart of hearts.” . . . And consistent with that warning, the Court has never, “in evaluating the legality of executive action, deferred to comments made by such officials to the media.” . . . The Court’s reluctance to consider statements made in the course of campaigning derives from good sense and a recognition of the pitfalls that would accompany such an inquiry.

Because of their nature, campaign statements are unbounded resources by which to find intent of various kinds. They are often short-hand for larger ideas; they are explained, modified, retracted, and amplified as they are repeated and as new circumstances and arguments arise. And they are often ambiguous. A court applying the majority’s new rule could thus have free [rein] to select whichever expression of a candidate’s developing ideas best supports its desired conclusion.

Moreover, opening the door to the use of campaign statements to inform the text of later executive orders has no rational limit. If a court, dredging through the myriad remarks of a campaign, fails to find material to produce the desired outcome, what stops it from probing deeper to find statements from a previous campaign, or from a previous business conference, or from college?

And how would use of such statements take into account intervening acts, events, and influences? When a candidate wins the election to the presidency, he takes an oath of office to abide by the Constitution and the laws of the Nation; he appoints officers of the government and retains advisors, usually specialized in their field. Is there not the possibility that a candidate might have different intentions than a President in office? And after taking office, a President faces new external events that may prompt new approaches altogether. How would a court assess the effect of these intervening events on presidential intent without conducting judicial psychoanalysis?

The foibles of such a rule are unbounded and its adoption would have serious implications for the democratic process. As Judge Kozinski said well when he wrote about the Ninth Circuit’s use of the same campaign statements:

Even if a politician’s past statements were utterly clear and consistent, using them to yield a specific constitutional violation would suggest an absurd result — namely, that the policies of an elected official can be forever held hostage by the unguarded declarations of a candidate. If a court were to find that campaign skeletons prevented an official from pursuing otherwise constitutional policies, what could he do to cure the defect? Could he stand up and recant it all (“just kidding!”) and try again? Or would we also need a court to police the sincerity of that mea culpa — piercing into the public official’s “heart of hearts” to divine whether he really changed his mind, just as the Supreme Court has warned us not to? . . . 

The danger of the majority’s new rule is that it will enable any court to justify its decision to strike down any executive action with which it disagrees. It need only find one statement that contradicts the stated reasons for a subsequent executive action and thereby pronounce that reasons for the executive action are a pretext. This, I submit, is precisely what the majority opinion does.

Moreover, the unbounded nature of the majority’s new rule will leave the President and his Administration in a clearly untenable position for future action. It is undeniable that President Trump will need to engage in foreign policy regarding majority-Muslim nations, including those designated by the Order. And yet the majority now suggests that at least some of those future actions might also be subject to the same challenges upheld today. Presumably, the majority does not intend entirely to stop the President from creating policies that address these nations, but it gives the President no guidelines for “cleansing” himself of the “taint” they have purportedly identified.

Finally, the new rule would by itself chill political speech directed at voters seeking to make their election decision. It is hard to imagine a greater or more direct chill on campaign speech than the knowledge that any statement made may be used later to support the inference of some nefarious intent when official actions are inevitably subjected to legal challenges. Indeed, the majority does not even deny that it employs an approach that will limit communication to voters. Instead, it simply opines remarkably that such chilling is “a welcome restraint.” . . .

The Supreme Court surely will shudder at the majority’s adoption of this new rule that has no limits or bounds — one that transforms the majority’s criticisms of a candidate’s various campaign statements into a constitutional violation.

My main disagreement with this passage is that “surely.” I wish I could be as confident on this point as Judge Niemeyer says he is.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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