by Heidi Kitrosser, Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School
Last month, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied the Trump administration’s request to stay a federal district court judge’s temporary injunction against the first version of President Trump’s travel order. Some critics of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion have argued, among other things, that the panel should not have considered Donald Trump’s statements as evidence that the order purposefully discriminated against Muslims. These critics suggest that presidential campaign speech categorically ought not to be included among the evidence to which courts look to determine whether a law was passed for discriminatory reasons.
This past Friday, Judge Kozinski – in an opinion joined by four of his fellow Ninth Circuit judges, dissenting from the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to vacate the panel opinion on the First Travel Order – joined these critics. Judge Kozinski characterized the panel’s use of Trump’s own statements as an “evidentiary snark hunt.” This approach, he warned, will reward lawyers for sifting through a candidate’s “often contradictory or inflammatory” statements, “when in truth the poor schlub’s only intention is to get elected.” Worse still, it “will chill campaign speech,” as candidates censor themselves for fear of uttering statements that will haunt them in court one day.
The concerns voiced by Judge Kozinski and other critics are misplaced. As both the Ninth Circuit panel and the federal trial court that first ruled on the case recognized, it is well established that courts may – indeed, often must – look beyond the face of a law to determine whether it is motivated partly by a discriminatory purpose. A contrary rule would create gaping loopholes in constitutional and statutory bars against religious or other forms of discrimination. To be sure, judicial inquiries into alleged discriminatory purposes are highly context-sensitive. A stray bigoted statement by a legislator or executive is unlikely to persuade a court that a measure is discriminatory in the face of ample evidence that it was directed toward, and serves a legitimate, non-discriminatory interest. On the other hand, a long history of public statements promising to take a particular action against a given group may well convince a court that the promised action, once taken, does purposefully discriminate against that group. At minimum, that history is relevant to the judicial inquiry, even if the court ultimately deems it outweighed by countervailing evidentiary factors. Were courts not free to so much as consider such history, the judicial power regarding anti-discrimination laws would be dramatically curtailed.