A federal judge whom President Donald Trump railed against as biased during the 2016 campaign issued a broad ruling Tuesday upholding the administration's legal authority to build a wall along the southern border.
U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel rejected lawsuits environmentalists and the State of California filed last year claiming that the Department of Homeland Security acted illegally when it waived environmental rules in connection with border wall replacement work and efforts to develop border wall prototypes.
In a 101-page opinion, Curiel said the challengers had not met the legal standard of showing that the federal officials involve violated a "clear and mandatory" statutory duty when granting the waivers.
The judge said Congress had clearly acted to expedite border construction. He also concluded that waiver provisions the Trump administration invoked were constitutional because they involve a logical part of the Homeland Security secretary's powers.
"Because the DHS secretary, acting as an agent of the executive branch, has significant, independent authority over immigration, Congress is justified in delegating broad authority," wrote Curiel. "While unlimited judicial review would assure compliance with all legal requirements, it would defeat the purpose of the law to expedite the construction of border barriers and roads in areas where they are needed."
Curiel parted company with the Trump administration in holding that the State of California had standing to sue and that Cabinet officials like the DHS secretary are subject to the Constitution's requirement that they "take care" to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed.
However, the Barack Obama-appointed judge sounded like a judicial conservative as he warned about trying to apply that requirement in these circumstances.
"Given that the challenged steps taken by the secretary are ones that are plausibly called for by an act of Congress, a Take Care challenge in this case would essentially open the doors to an undisciplined and unguided review process for all decisions made by the Executive Department," Curiel wrote.
The judge said his ruling should not be taken as expressing a view on the wisdom of Trump's policy, just the ;legal questions presented in the suits.
"The Court is aware that the subject of these lawsuits, border barriers, is currently the subject of heated political debate in and between the United States and the Republic of Mexico as to the need, efficacy and the source of funding for such barriers. In its review of this case, the court cannot and does not consider whether underlying decisions to construct the border barriers are politically wise or prudent," Curiel wrote.
A Justice Department spokesman welcomed the ruling.
"Border security is paramount to stemming the flow of illegal immigration that contributes to rising violent crime and to the drug crisis, and undermines national security," Justice spokesman Devin O'Malley said. "Congress gave authority to the Department of Homeland Security to construct a border wall without delay to prevent illegal entry into the United States, and we are pleased DHS can continue this important work vital to our nation’s interests.”
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly assailed Curiel, who was overseeing lawsuits, eventually settled, that alleged fraud in the Trump University real estate seminar program. Trump described the judge as "Mexican" and said his background created "an inherent conflict of interest."
The remarks drew rebukes for Trump from both sides of the aisle, with House Speaker Paul Ryan saying Trump's statement fit the "textbook definition of a racist comment."
Curiel's new opinion, while vowing to steer clear of politics, does seem to contain one subtle dig at Trump.
At one point, the judge cited an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, noting that Roberts is a "fellow Indiana native." The reference read like a passing reminder from the judge that he was born in the U.S., not in Mexico, as Trump asserted.