By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Friday that the Justice Department will ask the Supreme Court to block a judge's ruling that prevented President Donald Trump's travel ban from being applied to grandparents of U.S. citizens and refugees already being processed by resettlement agencies.
Sessions said in a statement that the administration would "reluctantly return directly to the Supreme Court" in a bid to overturn Thursday's decision by a U.S. district judge in Hawaii, which limited the scope of the administration's temporary ban on refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries. The Justice Department could file papers with the high court as soon as Friday.
"By this decision, the district court has improperly substituted its policy preferences for the national security judgments of the executive branch in a time of grave threats, defying both the lawful prerogatives of the executive branch and the directive of the Supreme Court," Sessions Said.
The Supreme Court last month said the ban could take effect, but that people with a "bona fide relationship" to a U.S. person or entity could not be barred.
The administration had narrowly interpreted that language, saying the ban would apply to grandparents and other family members, prompting the state of Hawaii to ask Hawaii-based U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson to expand the definition of who could be admitted.
"The truth here is that the government’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s stay order defies common sense," said Omar Jadwat, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union involved in challenging the ban. "That’s what the district court correctly found, and the attorney general’s misleading attacks on its decision can’t change that fact."
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court is not currently in session, but the justices can handle emergency requests. The administration's application could be directed either to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has responsibility for emergency requests from western states, or to the nine justices as a whole. If the court as a whole is asked to weigh in, five votes are needed to grant such a request.
Separately, the Justice Department filed papers in Hawaii federal court saying it would appeal Watson's ruling to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That would give the government a second route to the Supreme Court.
Earlier on Friday, White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters that the ruling appeared to be "fairly broad and something that would trouble me if it was as broad as reported."
Bossert, speaking aboard Air Force One as the president returned from a trip to Paris, focused his remarks on the part of the ruling that would allow more refugees to enter the country, saying the ruling could be interpreted as "so expansive as to cover every refugee."
In his decision, Watson harshly criticized the government's definition of close family relations as "the antithesis of common sense."
Watson also ruled that the assurance by a resettlement agency to provide basic services to a newly arrived refugee constitutes an adequate connection to the United States because it is a sufficiently formal and documented agreement that triggers responsibilities and compensation.
The ruling, if left in place, means refugees can continue to be resettled in the United States, beyond a cap of 50,000 set by the executive order. That limit was reached this week.
The Supreme Court's decision last month revived parts of Trump's March 6 executive order banning travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, as well as refugees for 120 days. The court also agreed to hear oral arguments in the fall over whether the ban violates the U.S. Constitution.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, Yeganeh Torbati and Dan Levine; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)