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Federal judge speaks on immigration ban and response to his decision

March 28, 2018

By Lucy Porter C’18

On March 16, the Leo Model Foundation Government Service & Public Affairs InitiativePenn Program on Regulation, and the Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition welcomed the Honorable James L. Robart from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

The Washington state native and Georgetown Law Center alumnus has presided over numerous notable cases, including a major intellectual property dispute between Motorola and Microsoft and a consent decree concerning bias within the Seattle Police Department.

Robart’s most recent, and perhaps now most famous, action as a judge came on February 3, 2017. Robart was the first federal judge to order a nationwide halt to President Trump’s immigration and travel ban. Robart’s ruling was later confirmed by the 9th Circuit and rulings with similar issues are now pending final arguments in the Supreme Court.

The litigation before Robart concerned Trump’s first travel-related executive order, issued right on the heels of the inauguration, and Robart remarked that he had no way of knowing how the public and the executive branch would respond.

Robart said that the ramifications have caused him to wrestle with longstanding constitutional questions about the judiciary’s role in American government.

The judge emphasized a distinction he found core to his decision, between personal policy views and constitutional obligations as a judge. In his ruling he wrote, “The court concludes that the circumstances brought before it today are such that it must intervene to fulfill its constitutional role in our tripart government.”

“I didn’t want this to be perceived as me versus the president, because it wasn’t” he explained.

Despite Robart’s attempt to distinguish his ruling as an impersonal legal act, he found the volume and intensity of the communications he received astonishing. “I realized we were not in Kansas anymore,” he joked.

President Trump tweeted the morning after the ruling that Robart was a “so-called judge.”

Robart’s chambers were flooded with phone calls and emails from both dissenters and supporters of his decision. The volume was so great that the phones had to be taken off the hook and the Internet in the courthouse became overloaded. 

“I received messages telling me that any blood shed at the hands of an immigrant would be on my hands,” he recalled. The judge said he received a total of 46,000 messages and phone calls following his ruling.

One of the arguments made by the federal government during the appeal process was that “it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one,” according to the 9th Circuit decision upholding Robart’s ruling.

For Robart, the government’s assertion claimed more unreviewable power in the hands of the President than the Constitution contemplates. The system of checks and balances is vital to the survival of American democracy, he noted.

Robart, as with the rest of the nation, awaits the Supreme Court’s final decision later this term when it rules on a revised version of Trump’s travel ban.