Lawyers Are Heroes of the Trump Resistance

Published: Jan 31, 2017

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Just hours after President Trump signed his immigration executive order barring entry to nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries, lawyers got to work to fight the ban. Attorneys from the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU, and law students from Yale’s Worker and Immigration Law Center worked all Friday night putting together a complaint seeking to free two Iraqi men detained at JFK airport and any other travelers so detained because of the travel ban. The complaint was filed early Saturday morning in federal court in Brooklyn, argued that day by an ACLU lawyer, and by Saturday evening the court had enjoined the government from removing any individuals affected by the ban.

This quick legal response to the travel ban was repeated all over the country. Lawyers from large firms, immigration groups, and civil rights organizations filed similar petitions in Virginia, Georgia, California, and Washington, and met with similar success in the courts. Throughout the weekend and into this week, lawyers of all stripes have worked 24 hours a day at international arrivals terminals at JFK, Newark, Dulles, LAX, O’Hare, and other airports to represent travelers affected by the executive order. They have created makeshift legal offices in airport cafes and public spaces, stringing together laptops and printers and organizing shifts by Facebook, email, Twitter, and Google Docs. Even the government’s top lawyer became part of the legal response to the executive order when acting attorney general Sally Yates announced that Justice Department lawyers would not defend Trump’s order against legal challenges. The president quickly fired Yates and replaced her with a U.S. Attorney who agreed to rescind Yates’ order.

Immigration is just one front for the legal fight against Trump’s unorthodox presidency.  Last week the ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued President Trump for violating the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution by failing to divest from his many businesses. The once-obscure clause bars the president from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever” from foreign governments. The ethics lawyers assert that Trump is receiving “cash and favors from foreign governments through guests and events at his hotels, leases in his buildings, and valuable real estate deals abroad.”

Today brought the news that the city of San Francisco has sued Trump over his executive order withholding federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities.” Several of the largest US cities—including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, and Washington, DC—have enacted some form of protection to undocumented immigrants.  The lawsuit, filed by San Francisco’s city attorney alleges that the order violates the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers not granted to the federal government to the states. 

These suits are likely just the tip of the iceberg. The president is signing executive orders without running through the normal channels, with little of the legal oversight that normally goes into lawmaking. The orders that he has made so far have been easy to attack legally, and some draft orders that have been leaked are on even shakier legal ground.  Trump either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care what he can legally and constitutionally do, and he is acting about as quickly on as many fronts as possible. There will be more and more legal challenges and the independent judiciary will start to overrule the White House orders with more frequency.

The ACLU has collected more than $70 million in online donations since election day, about five times as much as the group has collected in online donations in the past three years combined. “With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the Democrats in disarray and lacking any spine, the two pincers (opposing Trump) have to be litigation and citizen action,” ACLU Director Anthony Romero said over the weekend.

Often hated and the butt of many a joke, lawyers are becoming the heroes of the resistance to the Trump presidency. That alone may be proof of a phrase that has been oft-repeated since the election: This is not normal.


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