O
n January 27th, 2017 which ironically happens to be Holocaust Remembrance Day, US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order entitled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’. The effect of the Executive order, inter alia, was to prevent the entry into the United States, irrespective of visa status, citizens of seven Muslim majority nations.

These nations were Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. While subsequent developments exempted legal permanent residents (Green Card holders) from the ambit of the Order and a Federal Court ordering a stay on its operation, the broad essence of its import remains intact. While the Executive Order with its purported implications have met with indignation and moral outrage the world over, not limited to the citizens of the affected nations amidst chaos pertaining to its implementation within the United States, it is important to analyse the legal nature of Executive Orders and the possible routes through which the controversial order could be rightly overturned.

Presidential Executive Orders and their overturn

While there is no express mention of Executive Order’s in Article II of the US Constitution, the relevant Constitutional provision which deals with the executive branch of the government, the power has been an integral feature of the American political landscape. The rationale for the exercise of the power is furthering the legislative mandate of the Congress by issue of specific directions to subordinate executive authorities. However, despite the same there has practically been no limit on either the number of Executive Orders a President may issue or the substantive issues which such orders may address. The only limit on executive orders is the requirement of being harmonious with the Constitution and consistency with the relevant legislative intent which in this case is the Immigration and Naturalization Act, 1965.

There are 3 methods by which an Executive Order may be overturned. Firstly, Presidential overrule- this implies the sitting President revokes a previous order issued by him or revokes an order issued by a previous President. Secondly, Congress enacts a law overruling the Order and thirdly, the Courts striking down the Order. Given Trump’s consistent posturing against Muslims and anti-immigration rhetoric being an integral part of his political platform, it’s unlikely that the President would voluntarily backtrack on the order. The Congress could step in to frustrate the order by enacting a law that repeals the order, defeats its purpose or blocks funding for the mandate but it could be vetoed by the President. Such a veto can only be neutralized by a two-thirds majority in both houses. This implies the support of 67 out of 100 Senators in the Upper Chamber and 290 out of 435 Representatives in the Lower Chamber. Given the current Democratic Party strength of 48 and 193 respectively, it would be a herculean diplomatic effort to galvanize those numbers. However, the given the bipartisan independence that legislators can afford to adopt; such a successful effort on that front cannot be ruled out.This leaves the Judiciary as the final destination which can meaningfully thwart the executive order in light of broader humanitarian and constitutional considerations. If the same happens it would be only third instance in US history where the judiciary strikes down an executive order.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer (Steel Seizure Case-1952)

Popularly known as the Steel Seizure Case, the litigation was the first and only case in which a Presidential executive order was struck down by the Supreme Court. The case pertained to forceful acquisition of private property during the Korean War by the President on the logic that such a move was necessary to prevent labour- management disputes which could adversely impact steel production necessary to augment war efforts. The Court struck down the Presidential acquisition of Steel production facilities as an illegal infringement of private property claims which were beyond the pale of legislative authorization. Since the judgment in effect ended up protecting private property claims at the expense of organized labour it was viewed in liberal legal circles as regressive despite the landmark precedent that Presidential authority could not trample upon Congress’ domain of law making. Justice Jackson’s reasoning which is regarded as the most influential opinion of the case laid down a ‘three prong’ test which could be employed to assess Presidential executive orders. According to the test, the first category of Orders are those where the President has ‘maximum powers to act’ which is pursuant to an express or implied authorization by Congress. Executive orders falling in this zone should witness least judicial interference as they reflect a legitimate executive effort in giving effect to the legislative will. The second category of Orders also referred as to as the ‘Twilight Zone’ pertain to those executive orders which operate in a field where Congress is silent. In these cases, there should be a judicial determination whether the exercise of Presidential power operates in a zone which Congress implicitly sanctions executive discretion to deal with exigencies. The judiciary is supposed to exercise a middle of the road approach in these category of cases. The third category of Orders also referred to as the “Lowest Ebb Zone” refers to those orders which are made contrary the express or implied will of the Congress. In this zone, the Courts have the broadest leeway to strike down suspect executive order as the effect of the same is to defeat the purposes of a legislative enactment unless the exercise of such power is derived directly from the Constitution.

President Trump’s controversial Executive order while claiming to further the mandate of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, 1965 in effect ends up defeating the purpose of the very enactment and is a flagrant violation of the same. While the act prohibited racial quotas and barred discrimination on the basis of national origin of immigrants, Trump’s order precisely performs the mischief which Congress intended to prevent. This puts the Order in Justice Jackson’s “Lowest Ebb Zone” which ought to alert the judiciary of an imminent need to examine the nature of the Order vis-a vis the parent statute which while granting flexibility to the President to deal with immigration matters clearly lays downs the broad policy contours giving effect to Constitutional principles pertaining to due process, fairness and free exercise of religion while legislating the field of immigration. Thus the Order is a colourable exercise of power which while claiming to achieve a desired purpose, far from harmoniously realizing the stated goal ends up frustrating the original mandate itself.

Despite the immediate impact of the Steel Seizure case, the precedential impact of the case, in particular Justice Jackson’s opinion which is widely considered be the most significant ruling in the case should be the judicial basis to assess the credibility of President Trump’s controversial executive order. Given the principles laid down, there is every reason to believe the suspect nature of the order and its ability to achieve in letter and spirit any guiding Constitutional principle. The Judiciary, chiefly the US Supreme Court is at a pivotal point in history where the “least dangerous” branch of the government has the most “significant responsibility” to ensure the preservation of Constitutional values.

Abraham Joseph

Advisory Board Member

Abraham Joseph is a PhD candidate in International Criminal Law from NLSIU, Bangalore and an Assistant  Professor in Ansal School of Law, Ansal University, Gurugram.

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