An executive order could just be a signal to Trump’s base that he fought on this issue before he eventually surrenders. But it’s also possible that he has no intention of claiming a symbolic victory, and wants to pursue a real one. So what if he simply ordered his Commerce Department to ignore court orders and press onward in violation of them, printing and distributing a Census form that asked every American resident their citizenship status?
If that happens, we’ll have entered a dangerous moment.
One problem with our constitutional system is that courts cannot always enforce their own rulings; they often need the cooperation of the executive branch. And they don’t always get it. Over a century ago, President Andrew Jackson is said to have scoffed that while the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had “made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Our system relies on the executive branch to enforce the laws, as President Eisenhower famously did in 1957 when he dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to enforce a desegregation order at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.