With a stroke of his pen, U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson placed himself in the middle of a political maelstrom.
Watson issued a landmark ruling in Hawaii v. Trump on Wednesday, blocking President Donald Trump’s revised executive order on immigration from taking effect nationwide — and, in the process, raising the ire of his outspoken supporters.
The denunciations came fast and furious.
Breitbart News called Watson’s ruling “completely lawless.” A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush called it a “dangerous precedent.” And Trump himself slammed it as “unprecedented judicial overreach” and then went personal:
“You don’t think this was done by a judge for political reasons, do you?” Trump asked sarcastically at a rally in Nashville, Tennessee. “This ruling makes us look weak.”
For Watson, all this is a new territory.
A former federal prosecutor who graduated in the same Harvard Law School class as Barack Obama, Watson, 50, is hardly known as a political flamethrower.
To those who know him, Watson — who was nominated by Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2013 — is a thoughtful, even-tempered colleague, a former Army reservist who tends to eschew the limelight.
“What I would say about Derek is that he is very smart and very even-keel — someone who approaches a situation without a great deal of emotional bias,” Jim Colopy, who has worked with Watson at two Bay Area law firms, told Civil Beat.
But there was nothing meek about Watson’s assessment of the travel ban.
In a 43-page opinion, Watson took the Trump administration to task for suggesting that the revised order is “religiously neutral” since it targets only a small fraction of the world’s Muslim population.
“The illogic of the government’s contention is palpable,” Watson wrote.
Watson then brushed aside the notion that he should rely only on the text of the travel ban to assess its purpose.
“Only a few weeks ago, the (9th) Circuit commanded otherwise,” Watson wrote. “The Supreme Court has been even more emphatic: Courts may not ‘turn a blind eye to the context in which (a) policy arose.'”
In the end, Watson ruled that past statements by Trump and his aides betrayed the true intent of the revised order: a “Muslim ban” — in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
“A reasonable, objective observer,” Watson wrote, “would conclude that the executive order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion, in spite of its stated, religiously neutral purpose.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who was in Honolulu to attend the meeting of the Conference of Western Attorneys General, hailed Watson’s ruling.
“What we heard today loud and clear … is that, when there’s an intent to discriminate — whether it’s in the four corners of the document or whether you need to look outside to the context in which the document was prepared — an intent is an intent,” Rosenblum said at a Wednesday press conference.
“You cannot snap your fingers and make an intent to discriminate go away simply by substituting one document for another. And that is the essence of what the court has found today,” said Rosenblum, who, along with attorneys general from 13 states and the District of Columbia, filed an amicus brief in support of Hawaii’s lawsuit.
In many ways, it seems fitting that Hawaii’s lawsuit, which referenced some parallels between the travel ban and the state’s history — such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack — was assigned to Watson, a Native Hawaiian jurist who graduated from Kamehameha Schools.
But Colopy expects Watson to set aside any personal views as he wades through the merits of the state’s claims in future proceedings.
“I would expect his philosophy as a judge to be very similar to his philosophy as a lawyer — which was to make decisions based on the law as he saw it and not to let his views and decisions be colored by external influences or biases,” said Colopy, who is a partner at the San Francisco law firm Farella Braun and Martel.
“I have great confidence that he would reach a decision that he thought was the right one based on the law and the facts — irrespective of how it may or may not reconcile with his personal political views or the political views of others,” Colopy said.