President Donald Trump's administration went before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to defend the legality of his travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries, one of the most contentious actions of his presidency.
During the first half of a scheduled hour of arguments, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote on the court, joined the liberal justices in asking U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco sharp questions about the ban and Trump's motivation for enacting it.
Referring to statements Trump made during his campaign for president such as calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," Francisco said those should be off-limits for courts to scrutinize because he was not the president at the time.
Kennedy expressed scepticism that courts cannot review words from candidates from the campaign trail. Kennedy gave the example of a local mayor who makes discriminatory statements and then two days after taking office acts on them.
"You're saying that everything he said is irrelevant?" Kennedy asked Francisco.
The arguments continued before the conservative-majority, nine-member court in the challenge led by the state of Hawaii to Trump's travel ban, which is the third version of a policy he first sought to implement a week after taking office in January 2017.
The policy prohibits entry into the United States of most people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Chad was on the list announced in September, but Trump removed it on April 10.
Until Wednesday, the court had never heard arguments on the legal merits of the travel ban or any other major Trump immigration policy, including his move to rescind protections for young immigrants sometimes called Dreamers brought into the United States illegally as children.
It previously acted on the Republican president's requests to undo lower court orders blocking those two policies, siding with Trump on the travel ban and opposing him on the Dreamers.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Democratic-governed Hawaii has argued that the travel ban violates federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on the government favouring one religion over another.
The Supreme Court on Dec. 4 signalled it may lean towards backing Trump when it granted on a 7-2 vote his administration's request to let the ban go into full effect while legal challenges played out.
Trump has generated controversy with his hardline immigration policies, also including actions taken against states and cities that protect illegal immigrants, intensified deportation efforts and limits on legal immigration.
Trump has said the travel ban is needed to protect the United States from terrorism by Islamic militants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday cited the president's "broad discretion and authority to protect the United States from all foreign and domestic threats."
"President Trump determined this travel order is critical to protecting the American people," Sessions said in statement.
About 150 people demonstrated against the travel ban outside the courthouse on a rainy morning in the U.S. capital. Seema Sked, 39, stood before the court's plaza with a homemade sign that read, "Proud American Muslim."
"The Muslim ban offends freedom of religion, which is a protected right," said Sked, who immigrated with her parents from Pakistan when she was a toddler and now lives in Virginia. "It hurts me because it is singling out and demeaning Muslims because of their faith."
The challengers have argued the policy was motivated by Trump's enmity towards Muslims, pressing that point in lower courts with some success by citing statements he made as a candidate and as president.
The Justice Department argues Trump's statements as a candidate carry no weight because he was not yet president.
In defending the ban, the administration has also pointed to a waiver provision allowing people from targeted countries to seek entry if they meet certain criteria.
Venezuela and North Korea also were targeted in the travel ban. Those restrictions were not challenged in court.