Maryland U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang ruled Thursday against President Donald Trump's revised travel ban, establishing a double barrier preventing the policy from going into effect.
For Trump's order banning entry for people from several majority-Muslim nations ban to begin, the Justice Department will now have to persuade judges in two federal appeals courts to overturn rulings against it.
The new executive order, issued March 6, had been scheduled to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. The Trump administration tweaked a previous order, which also had been blocked by the courts, to try to avoid claims that it constituted a "Muslim ban."
But Chuang, who sits in Greenbelt, and a federal judge in Hawaii looked to the president's past statements and concluded that the ban still discriminated on the grounds of religion.
Chuang found that the executive order likely violated the Constitution's religious freedom protections and that some of its provisions violated parts of federal immigration law.
Chuang acknowledged that the courts should typically defer to the executive branch on national security matters but that security concerns could not be used as a cover for religious discrimination.
"While the travel ban bears no resemblance to any response to a national security risk in recent history, it bears a clear resemblance to the precise action that President Trump described as effectuating his Muslim ban," Chuang wrote.
"Thus, it is more likely that the primary purpose of the travel ban was grounded in religion, and even if the Second Executive Order has a national security purpose, it is likely that its primary purpose remains the effectuation of the proposed Muslim ban."
Chuang did not put on hold provisions of the executive order suspending the admission of refugees into the United States. The judge in Hawaii did.
While the rulings are preliminary, a victory at such an early stage in the case suggests that opponents of the ban have a good chance of ultimately winning, one legal observer said Thursday.
The Maryland attorney general's office has used new powers granted it by the General Assembly this year to join a third lawsuit against the travel ban that is continuing in Seattle.
The Maryland suit was originally filed against the first ban and amended to tackle the rewritten one. Among the plaintiffs are two unidentified men whose wives are from Iran and are still living there. If the ban went into effect, the suit says, the women would be forbidden from joining their husbands in the United States.
On Wednesday, Trump called the Hawaii ruling an example of "unprecedented judicial overreach" and said his administration would appeal it to the Supreme Court. He also called his new travel ban a watered-down version of the first one, which he said he wishes he could implement.
"We're going to win. We're going to keep our citizens safe," the president said at a rally in Nashville, Tenn. "The danger is clear. The law is clear. The need for my executive order is clear."
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Thursday the administration expected to take action "soon" to appeal the case to the 4th Circuit and would seek clarification on the Hawaii judge's order before moving forward.
Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said the Trump administration is now in a difficult position because the courts have a built up a stock of unfavorable rulings against the president's orders.
"Here's the problem for the administration and why, when you get to be president, you should not rush to put an order like this into effect: They already have a lot of adverse circuit [court] precedent," Epps said.
There is some glimmer of hope for the government. On Wednesday, five of the 9th Circuit's 25 judges signed an opinion saying they would have let the original executive order go into effect.
"The Executive Order was easily 'facially legitimate' and supported by a 'bona fide reason,'" the five judges wrote.
If two of those five are selected for a three-judge panel to hear the appeal against the rewritten order, that would be enough to overturn the Hawaii judge's ruling. The 4th Circuit, meanwhile, is not bound to look to the other court to come to a ruling.
Chuang, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, served in President Barack Obama's Department of Homeland Security and on a detail to the State Department. He was selected to serve on the court in 2013 as part of a wave of younger judges nominated by Obama.
Apart from a brief stint at a large Washington law firm, Chuang has spent his entire career working in the government, starting out in the Justice Department's civil rights unit after graduating from Harvard in 1991 and Harvard Law School in 1994. In 2009, he began working in the general counsel's office at Homeland Security.
During Chuang's confirmation hearing, an influential Republican senator, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, accused Chuang of having a role in frustrating congressional efforts to investigate the death of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, while he was serving on special assignment at the State Department. But Chuang had strong support from Maryland's two Democratic senators at the time, Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski.
Chuang was confirmed on a 53-42 vote. Another judge confirmed for the bench in Maryland the same day sailed through, 95-0.