When Donald Trump signed his January 27 executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which temporarily halted the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, as well as slamming the door shut on refugees, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson was ready.
When the order was unveiled, Ferguson was meeting with other Democratic state attorneys general in Fort Lauderdale, discussing likely challenges they would face from the Trump administration on immigration law, civil rights, environmental regulations, and other key policy areas.
Following the meeting, Ferguson, a canny strategist who spent his youth as a high-level competitive chess player, twice winning the Washington State championship, immediately put a longstanding response plan into action. Within minutes of the order being signed, Ferguson’s team—including an expanded civil-rights division, which he had prepared over the past several months for just such a moment, and which had been in contact with Democratic attorneys general nationwide to work out how to respond to such actions—was poring over the text, looking for legal weaknesses that could expose it to a constitutional challenge. By the time he returned to the West Coast the following morning, the legal wheels for a court challenge were firmly in motion.
“After the shock [of Trump’s election victory] wore off,” the attorney general said, speaking by phone from the state capital of Olympia. “I wanted my office to be ready in case President Trump attempted to deliver on some of his campaign promises—for example, delivering a Muslim ban. We felt the executive order was unconstitutional and unlawful and was adversely impacting thousands of Washington State residents.” Ferguson, who has been state attorney general since 2013, added, “I felt it was important that someone stand up to the president. I wouldn’t have filed it if I didn’t think I was going to win; [I had] complete confidence in the outcome. I felt we had the better of the legal arguments.”
On February 3, Federal Judge James Robart sided with Washington State and with Minnesota, whose attorney general had joined with Ferguson in seeking an injunction against the ban, arguing that vital state economic interests were at stake. The ban was, temporarily, kiboshed. “The law is not an abstraction,” Ferguson subsequently explained. “The reason I went to law school is because when used in the right way, the law can have a profound impact on people in really personal ways.”
Civil rights groups responded with elation, the Trump administration with fury. In a series of wrathful tweets, the president impugned the integrity of the “so-called judge” and argued that blood would be on Robart’s hands if a terrorist attack were to occur. Six days later, however, a panel of judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, and Trump’s team had to go back to the drawing board, as they sought to craft a creeping ban on Muslim entry into the country.