Trump travel ban in hands of federal appeals court

Kay Aull, from left, holds a sign and chants with Beth Kohn, Paul Paz y Mino and Karen Shore outside of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. President Donald Trump's travel ban faced its biggest legal test yet Tuesday as a panel of federal judges prepared to hear arguments from the administration and its opponents about two fundamentally divergent views of the executive branch and the court system. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court will decide whether to reinstate President Donald Trump’s travel ban after a contentious hearing in which the judges hammered away at the administration’s motivations for the ban, but also directed pointed questions to an attorney for two states trying to overturn it.

It was unclear which way the three judges of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would rule, though legal experts said the states appeared to have the edge.

“I’m not sure if either side presented a compelling case, but I certainly thought the government’s case came across as weaker,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

A ruling could come as early today and could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals court challenged the administration’s claim that the ban was motivated by terrorism fears, but it also questioned the argument of an attorney challenging the executive order on grounds that it unconstitutionally targeted Muslims.

The contentious hearing before three judges on the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals focused narrowly on whether a restraining order issued by a lower court should remain in effect while a challenge to the ban proceeds. But the judges jumped into the larger constitutional questions surrounding Trump’s order, which temporarily suspended the nation’s refugee program and immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries that have raised terrorism concerns.

The hearing Tuesday was conducted by phone — an unusual step — and broadcast live on cable networks, newspaper websites and various social media outlets. It attracted a huge audience, with more than 130,000 alone tuned in to the court’s YouTube site to hear audio.

Judge Richard Clifton, a George W. Bush nominee, asked an attorney representing Washington state and Minnesota what evidence he had that the ban was motivated by religion. The two states are suing to invalidate the ban.