(CN) – A three-judge Ninth Circuit panel ruled Thursday that the federal government applied an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of “close family relationships” when it sought to prevent aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews and cousins of those already in the United States from entering the country under the Trump administration’s travel ban.
“The government unreasonably interprets the Supreme Court’s reference to ‘close familial relationship[s],’” the panel wrote in the 37-page per curiam ruling.
Circuit Judges Michael Daly Hawkins, Ronald Gould and Richard Paez, all appointed by President Bill Clinton, made up the panel.
Their ruling affirms a decision by U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii, who found the Trump administration’s effort to deny entry into the United States for extended family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents was incongruent with the Supreme Court’s order.
The controversy over the travel ban dates back to the fledgling days of the Trump administration, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa.
The president revised the executive order, dropping Iraq from the list and making other revisions this past March. The current ban extends to citizens of Iran, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Syria.
In both cases, state attorneys general sued saying the travel ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it was a clear case of discrimination against the Muslim faith. They pointed to statements made by Trump on the campaign trail and after the election, along with statements of his closest aides, to show the travel ban was more about harming Muslims than protecting national security interests.
Hawaii sued in March, with Watson granting a preliminary injunction that was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which said the travel ban applied immediately to all those lacking a “bona fide relationship” with the United States pending its full review of the case later this year.
The federal government implemented portions of the ban in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling, but Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin said the administration was illegally excluding several classes of close family members.
Watson initially balked at ruling, but after the Ninth Circuit said it was within his jurisdiction to do so he found for the plaintiffs and said the government was wrong in excluding extended family members.
Trump appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed Watson’s ruling Thursday.
“The district court carefully and correctly balanced the hardships and the equitable considerations as directed by the Supreme Court,” the panel wrote in its decision.
“It is clear that the Supreme Court’s use of ‘close familial relationship[s]’ meant that the court wanted to exclude individuals who have no connection with the United States or have remote familial relationships that would not qualify as ‘bona fide’,” the panel wrote. “The government does not meaningfully argue how grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins of persons in the United States can be considered to have ‘no connection’ to or ‘lack any bona fide relationship’ with persons in the United States.”
The Trump administration’s struggle to make its case was apparent during oral arguments in August, when the panel took an incredulous tone in their questions to the government lawyer.
Neal Katyal, an attorney for the plaintiffs, celebrated the victory on Twitter.
“The court of appeals has just sided with Hawaii (and constitutional freedoms everywhere) against Trump,” he tweeted after the ruling was issued.
The celebration may be short-lived however, as the Supreme Court will take up the legality of the travel ban with oral arguments slated for Oct. 10.