Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has mostly labored in relative obscurity during her decade as the state’s top lawyer. But the northern St. Louis County native (who grew up near Orr) garnered national headlines this past week as she waded into the growing debate over the legality and constitutionality of President Trump’s executive order to temporarily block travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Swanson signed on to the lawsuit, first filed by the attorney general of Washington state, that led to last Friday’s ruling by a Ninth Circuit district judge temporarily invalidating Trump’s decree.
Swanson’s action comes at a time when DFLers are beginning the political jockeying over who will seek to replace Gov. Mark Dayton, who isn’t planning to seek re-election next year. The office of attorney general is often viewed as a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion, and Swanson’s rural roots could benefit a DFL that has increasingly struggled politically outside the metro. And Swanson has won three straight statewide races, and has frequently outperformed other statewide DFL candidates in northeastern Minnesota balloting.
She’s indicated that she’s considering a run, but hasn’t made a final decision at this point. At a time when many DFLers have their dander up over the early actions of the Trump administration, Swanson’s decision to join the legal challenge to Trump will undoubtedly win her friends among the party’s activist base.
A legal victory would be a particularly juicy plum for the attorney general, but the prospect for that outcome is less certain. While the courts have generally sided with opponents of Trump’s ban, there are valid arguments— both statutory and constitutional— on both sides of the issue, and the courts could come down in a number of different ways once the cases are fully argued.
The president’s authority over immigration is broad, which favors Trump’s position generally. On the other hand, his order is a virtual textbook case of arbitrary government action that appears to undermine constitutional protections. The place of a person’s birth or status as a citizen is no predictor, whatsoever, of anyone’s propensity to engage in terrorism in the U.S., and that’s undoubtedly one reason that Congress passed a law in 1965 that prohibits the president from barring entry to the U.S. based solely on nationality or religion. What’s worse, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway had to resort to her fictitious Bowling Green massacre when challenged to cite a single example where a citizen of any of the countries on Trump’s banned list had engaged in terrorist attacks in the U.S.
The Trump administration subsequently tried to defend the president’s action with the suggestion that he was simply following previous decisions made by President Obama, yet such claims completely misstate the legally-defensible and legitimate action taken by the Obama administration to improve vetting of travelers to the U.S. The Obama administration based enhanced scrutiny on an applicant’s travel history (which makes sense) rather than their place of birth, or their religion. Trump’s travel ban and his hysterical tweets in its defense, are little more than fear mongering, intended to appeal to American’s basest instincts. Americans should recognize it as demagoguery.
The country and its governmental institutions would be well served were the courts to set some ground rules for a new president who plainly has little understanding of our system of checks and balances. What’s more, Trump’s personal attacks on the judiciary in the wake of the ruling setting aside his order are quite simply unworthy of his office. The new president apparently believed he could rule by decree. Fortunately, the federal bureaucracy, including the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, fell quickly in line with the judicial orders, even if Trump had trouble acknowledging there were any checks on his power.
With the Republican Congress abdicating its constitutional role to check the president’s abuses, it’s up to others, such as attorneys general in places like Minnesota, to step into the void. By wading into the fray early on, Swanson is just doing her job. That should reflect well should she choose to pursue a higher office.