Trump travel ban offers insight into complicated US legal system

Legal battle created by executive order is taking place in the federal court network

The United States has a complicated legal system, with federal and state courts operating independently of each other.

However, the normally nine-judge US supreme court, which sits in Washington DC, oversees the entire federal and state court network.

The legal controversy created by US president Donal Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees is taking placed in the federal system.

That system has 94 district courts, and 13 appeal courts (circuit courts). It deals with cases arising under the constitution, federal statutes, and international treaties. The US supreme court in Washington DC is the final court of appeal.


The state court systems are established by the states themselves and often include initial trial courts that handle specific matters, such as juvenile cases, or wills. There is an intermediate level or court of appeal level, followed by a highest court for each state, often called a state supreme court. Only certain types of cases that pass through the state system can go forward to the US supreme court in Washington DC.


The stays issued by the courts in the US that have so annoyed Trump have been made in federal district courts.

While the earlier rulings made by judges in these courts involved temporary stays on aspects of the president’s order, a decision on Friday by Judge James Robart, in the district court in Seattle, had a more general application and led to the US Customs and Border Protection service telling airlines to operate as they had prior to the order.

Acting on a request from two states, Washington and Minnesota, Robart temporarily banned the administration from enforcing key parts of Trump’s order. The judge, who was appointed by president George W Bush, issued an order that had nationwide effect.

Lawyers for the federal government went to court of appeals for the 9th circuit, which is based in San Francisco and covers the Seattle district court, on Saturday and sought a stay on the temporary restraining order issued by Robart.


Two judges of the San Francisco court, William Canby Jr, appointed by president Jimmy Carter, and Michelle Friedland, appointed by Barack Obama, refused the request but said the court would look further into the matter, once further submissions had been made.

Other parties, including a host of major technology multinationals, and two former secretaries of state, John Kerry and Madeline Albright, have issued opinions addressed to the court.

The court’s final ruling will be made by a three-judge court, with the third judge being Richard R Clifton, who was appointed by George W Bush. A decision is expected early this week.

Many observers believe that, whatever the final outcome, the losing side will appeal the matter to the US supreme court. That court is currently short one judge, so a 4-4 ruling is possible.