The Trump Administration asked the Supreme Court on Friday night to stop a federal judge in California from forcing the government to hand over thousands of pages of internal documents showing how it decided to end a program that has allowed undocumented young immigrants to remain in the U.S. to work and to study.
The judge is handling five separate lawsuits challenging the Administration’s decision in September to end by next March the so-called “DACA” program: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The policy covers about 800,000 young people, who have been protected from deportation for the past five years under the policy created by the Obama Administration.
If the program does end (and there are discussions in Congress on whether to save it from being nullified by the Trump Administration), all of those protected by it would face deportation to countries where the young people have not lived since being brought into the U.S. as children, by their parents. The youths have come to be known as “Dreamers,” to reflect their aspirations to grow up in America even though DACA does not guarantee them a path to citizenship or permanent legal status.
The issue that Administration lawyers have now taken to the Supreme Court does not involve the ultimate legality of the decision to “wind down” DACA; that has yet to be decided by the judge in San Francisco. Instead, the dispute at this point focuses only on the size and scope of the documentary record that may bear – directly or indirectly – on how and why that decision was made.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup plans to make his final decision based, in part, on the large file of documents that he has ordered to be submitted to him by December 22. If the government makes confidentiality claims about any of the documents, the judge will decide – document by document — whether to shield them from public disclosure.
Government lawyers told the Court that the judge has already refused to keep confidential some 35 documents that were previously submitted to him in a sealed form, rejecting government claims of confidentiality.
In deciding to nullify the program as of March 5, officials of the Homeland Security Department said they had to do so because the program would not stand up to a threatened court challenge by a coalition of states led by Texas. Homeland Security officials made that decision partly upon the legal advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
So, the judge’s orders seek to probe papers and electronic messages dealing with internal legal discussions at the Justice Department, any papers or electronic files that may have contributed to the wind-down decision by Homeland Security officials, and even internal communications within the White House – even if all of those papers were not actually considered directly by the Homeland Security’s Secretary in making the decision, so long as someone in the chain of decision-making had taken the contents of those files into account.
In the Friday night filings at the Supreme Court, government lawyers contended that the judge’s order would intrude deeply into the private deliberations of the Executive Branch, raising constitutional questions under the “separation of powers” doctrine that prevents such intrusions.
Under orders to produce what could be a massive file of papers by a December 22 deadline, government lawyers said they have already identified 21,000 pages of internal documents that potentially must be handed over, and now must reexamine at least 6,000 pages of those documents to see if they fit within the judge’s demands. It still is faced with reviewing hundreds of thousands of other documents that potentially may be covered by the disclosure order, the filings asserted.
Many of those documents, the new filing argued, are covered by various legal confidentiality “privileges” – such as those that normally shield from disclosure discussions that agency officials have with their lawyers, internal policy deliberations, and papers that are covered by “executive privilege” – that is, internal working papers of the White House or a federal agency.
At the most, the filings said, the government should only have to share with the court and with the lawyers for the challengers those papers or files that the head of Homeland Security personally relied upon in reaching the wind-down decision. Such documents already have been submitted to Judge Alsup, but he ruled that they were nowhere near the complete file that needs to be shared.
The judge’s disclosure order has already been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which concluded that the order was within the trial judge’s power in managing the document “discovery” process prior to the actual trial.
The new filings specifically asked the Justices for the following:
First, to put Judge Alsup’s order on temporary hold until the Justices can consider and rule on the government’s objections to that order. (UPDATE: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy late on Friday night told the challengers to file a response to this request by next Wednesday at 4 p.m. Kennedy handles requests for emergency action from the Ninth Circuit area, which includes California.)
Second, hear the government’s appeal and then issue a direct order to the judge, telling him to withdraw the disclosure orders, at least until after he has ruled on a pending government motion to have the five cases dismissed based on a theory that the Homeland Security decision is not subject to court review at all. Technically, this is a request for a “writ of mandamus” – an order to a judge to take a specific action.
Third, if the Justices are not prepared to issue a direct order to the judge, to then consider Friday’s filings as a request for review by the Justices of the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling upholding the judge’s disclosure requirements. Technically, this was a back-up plea for a “writ of certiorari” – that is, a petition to review a lower court decision.
The Supreme Court has previously taken one action on the DACA program, but that did not settle the program’s ultimate fate. Splitting 4-to-4 last year, the Justices refused to review lower court orders that had blocked an expansion in 2014 of the DACA program beyond its original form as issued in 2012. The basic 2012 form has never been ruled upon by any court; only the expansion was involved in the Justices’ prior action.
The Justices’ action last year also left intact lower court rulings blocking enforcement of a separate Obama Administration program, to delay the deportation of some 4 million adults who are in the country illegally but are parents of children who are U.S. citizens or who have permanent legal residence status. That program for adults was called “DAPA,” or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents.
Because of those lower court rulings, DAPA has ceased to exist.
The coalition of states led by Texas succeeded in their challenge to DAPA and to the expansion of the DACA program. After Trump Administration officials decided earlier this year to temporary allow the original DACA program for young people to continue, Texas officials threatened a new lawsuit if the Administration did not change its mind on keeping that program going. That threat triggered the internal review that led the Homeland Security Secretary to decide to wind-down DACA.
The end of the program was set for next March 5, to allow Congress time to decide whether to keep DACA in existence. Proposals to make the program permanent apparently have wide support among lawmakers from both major political parties, but the fate of DACA may get caught up in congressional disputes over the federal budget.