WASHINGTON — From affirmative action and immigration to voting rights and LGBT protections, the Trump administration is switching sides in some of the nation’s most consequential legal battles.
The rapid-fire reversals of Obama administration policies and legal positions throws the weight of the U.S. government from one side to the other in a number of hotly contested court battles, including several headed toward the Supreme Court.
In the space of 12 days recently, the Justice Department said civil rights laws do not protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination and voting rights laws do not prevent states from cleansing registration rolls of non-voters. In between, it indicated it may fight, rather than defend, affirmative action policies at colleges and universities.
That followed similar about-faces in some of the biggest legal battles waged by President Barack Obama to defend his signature immigration, health care and climate change initiatives. Trump also has flipped the government’s position in lesser-known court fights over workers’ rights, women’s rights and transgender rights.
“Many of these changes are not just changes in policy, but they’re actually reversing the U.S. government’s official position on what statutes mean,” says David Cole, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “What a statute means ought not change from one administration to another. The law is the law.”
Policy changes at the start of a new administration are nothing new, particularly when the White House changes hands politically. What appears to be different now is the volume of change, the number of ongoing court battles and the mandate Trump claimed to dismantle the key achievements of his predecessor.
In some cases, the new administration is threatening to take its policy reversals even further through court action:
• On immigration, the Department of Homeland Security in June ended Obama’s program to protect from deportation millions of undocumented immigrants whose children are citizens or permanent residents. Now, faced with legal action by Texas and other states, it is considering ending the five-year-old program that has protected 800,000 immigrants who came to the United States as children.
• On health care, the administration is mulling whether to drop its appeal of a lower court decision striking down a provision of Obama’s Affordable Care Act that pays insurers to keep costs down for low-income participants. Without the reimbursements, insurance premiums could skyrocket. A coalition of Democratic attorneys general is preparing take over the appeal if necessary.
• On climate change, the government has played a similar waiting game, getting the same appeals court to delay ruling on Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. That keeps the policy, which has been on hold for 18 months, from taking effect.
In the climate change and other environmental lawsuits, “their first course of conduct has been to try to get the courts off their back,” says David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.