Sometimes you can tell when a judge is just itching to replace their robe with their politician's hat. Today, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania has struck down President Obama's recently announced executive actions on immigration as unconstitutional. But in so doing, Judge Arthur Schwab didn't just reach a wrong conclusion: He wrote his opinion in a way suggesting that he has put his ideological priorities ahead of the law.
The big questions in this case are: (1) Does the executive action apply to Elionardo Juarez-Escobar, the individual in this case? and (2) If so, is the executive action constitutional?
That's the order you'd expect the questions to be discussed, since judges are supposed to avoid making constitutional interpretations if they don't have to. But Judge Schwab – nominated to the bench by George W. Bush – tackled the constitutional question first, declaring the policy unconstitutional. Only then did he get to the second question, where he discussed how difficult it is to determine if the policy applies to Juarez-Escobar. About 2/3 of the way into the opinion, after addressing the constitutional issue, he writes:
[I]f President Obama's Executive Action is constitutional, the Court must determine its applicability to this Defendant.
Actually, he has that backwards: Only if the executive action applies to the defendant does the judge have any business addressing its constitutionality. His desire to jump to the constitutional question raises questions.
So do his needless editorial comments making clear that he disapproves of extending basic rights to undocumented immigrants. He writes:
Although it may seem counterintuitive that the Constitution, a document created to protect the citizens of this Nation, can endow undocumented immigrants illegally residing in this country with any constitutional rights, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that these individuals are entitled to be treated humanely and, at least on a procedural level, are to be afforded with certain constitutional rights and protections.
Adding to the question as to whether Schwab is being more judge or politician, he devotes an entire section to 2011 statements by President Obama that are not relevant to the issue but which far-right Republicans cite routinely. Obama made general comments about not being able to unilaterally change immigration law by executive order. He never said that he could not take any executive action, let alone the actions he took last month, which do not grant citizenship, give people legal status, or otherwise actually change the underlying immigration law.
And that's really the big picture here. Although there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, Congress only gives the administration the resources to deport about 3.5% of that number. Congress drafted the Homeland Security Act of 2002 with the recognition that decisions about priorities have to be made: In that law, Congress expressly gave the Department of Homeland Security the authority to "establish national immigration enforcement policies and priorities." And that's what President Obama is doing, just as other presidents have done before him. And just as the Roberts Court recognized in the 2012 case of Arizona v. U.S., where the Court wrote that "a principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials." President Obama is not doing anything even remotely beyond the pale.
So while President Obama's 2011 statements make great fodder for Fox News, they don't address the current executive actions, and the only reason to include them in a judicial opinion is to score political points. Fortunately, this is just a district court ruling and is not likely to be the last word on this issue.