SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court refused Thursday to reinstate President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, dealing another legal setback to the new administration’s immigration policy.
In a unanimous decision, the panel of three judges from the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block a lower-court ruling that suspended the ban and allowed previously barred travelers to enter the U.S.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible and would put the decision in the hands of a divided court that has a vacancy. Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, could not be confirmed in time to take part in any consideration of the ban.
The appeals panel said the government presented no evidence to explain the urgent need for the executive order to take effect immediately. The judges noted compelling public interests on both sides.
“On the one hand, the public has a powerful interest in national security and in the ability of an elected president to enact policies. And on the other, the public also has an interest in free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination.”
The court rejected the administration’s claim that it did not have the authority to review the president’s executive order.
“There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy,” the court said.
Last week, U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order halting the ban after Washington state and Minnesota sued. The ban temporarily suspended the nation’s refugee program and immigration from countries that have raised terrorism concerns.
Justice Department lawyers appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the president has the constitutional power to restrict entry to the United States and that the courts cannot second-guess his determination that such a step was needed to prevent terrorism.
The states said Trump’s travel ban harmed individuals, businesses and universities. Citing Trump’s campaign promise to stop Muslims from entering the U.S., they said the ban unconstitutionally blocked entry to people based on religion.
Both sides faced tough questioning during an hour of arguments Tuesday. The judges hammered away at the administration’s claim that the ban was motivated by terrorism fears, but they also challenged the states’ argument that it targeted Muslims.
“I have trouble understanding why we’re supposed to infer religious animus when, in fact, the vast majority of Muslims would not be affected,” Judge Richard Clifton, a George W. Bush nominee, asked an attorney representing Washington state and Minnesota.
Only 15 percent of the world’s Muslims are affected by the executive order, the judge said, citing his own calculations.
“Has the government pointed to any evidence connecting these countries to terrorism?” Judge Michelle T. Friedland, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, asked the Justice Department attorney.
After the ban was put on hold, the State Department quickly said people from the seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — with valid visas could travel to the U.S. The decision led to tearful reunions at airports round the country.
The ban was set to expire in 90 days, meaning it could run its course before the Supreme Court would take up the issue. The administration also could change the order, including changing its scope or duration.
Shortly after the ruling, Trump tweeted: “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”
The Justice Department said it was reviewing the decision and considering its options.
Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order barred entry for citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days and imposed a 120-day halt on all refugees, except refugees from Syria who are barred indefinitely.
U.S. District Judge Robart suspended Trump’s order last Friday.
The ruling from the 9th Circuit, which followed a hearing on the case on Tuesday, does not resolve the lawsuit, but relates instead to whether Trump’s order should be suspended while litigation proceeds.
Two members of the three-judge panel were appointed by former Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, and one was appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush.
The government could ask the entire 9th Circuit court to review the decision “en banc” or appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The three judges said the states had shown that even temporary reinstatement of the ban would cause harm.
In the ruling, they said they acknowledged the competing public interests of national security and free flow of travel but that the U.S. government had not offered “any evidence” of national security concerns to justify banning the seven countries.
They added that the government did not show evidence that any person from the affected countries had perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States.
Their ruling also said it was unlikely the White House’s counsel had authority to amend a presidential executive order and that the government did not show how the order could be administered in parts.
Curbing entry to the United States as a national security measure was a central premise of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, originally proposed as a temporary ban on all Muslims. He has voiced frustration at the legal challenge to his order.
U.S. presidents have in the past claimed sweeping powers to fight terrorism, but individuals, states and civil rights groups challenging the ban said his administration had offered no evidence it answered a threat.