Why then did Watson accept the far-fetched argument that aliens can acquire First Amendment rights at second-hand? Watson candidly confessed that he was swayed by the avowals by the president and his senior aides that their motives were indeed based on irrational religious discrimination. “In this highly unique case,” he wrote, “the record provides strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose for the travel ban.” He could not overlook “significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus driving the promulgation of the Executive Order and its related predecessor.”
To amend an old saying: Bad presidents make bad law. Because President Trump is behaving in an unprecedented way, Watson feels called upon also to behave in an unprecedented way. In order to defend a constitutional value—equal treatment of all American religions—Watson has issued an order that corrodes the constitutional system itself. It’s a lose-lose proposition, because either way a constitutional norm would be weakened before the world.
Watson’s imaginative reasoning in Hawaii v. Trump asserts a new judicial power to disregard formal law if the president’s personal words create a basis for mistrusting his motives. In the age of Trump, many will be sympathetic to this judicial power—but it is crammed with dangers, too. Not the least of those dangers is that this new rule creates incentives for the president to race to cram the courts with his people in the possibly brief window in which his party controls the Senate. If presidential power ebbs and flows according to the opinions the judges of the moment happen to feel about the character of the president of the moment, the day has come when the courts too must become a prize of hyper-partisan politics.