The Supreme Court handed the Trump administration a major victory Monday by giving the green light to impose fully the president's travel ban for residents of six Muslim-majority countries.
The justices, with two dissenting votes, lifted stays imposed by lower courts and allowed the policy to take effect while legal challenges proceed. The action sent a strong signal that the high court looks favorably on the latest version of President Trump's order that critics denounce as racist and Islamophobic.
This is the third version of the so-called travel ban or extreme vetting order that until now has repeatedly been blocked by federal judges. It was introduced in September and sought to curtail visitors and would-be immigrants from eight countries: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.
The lower court challenges did not stop the ban on travelers from North Korea and Venezuela - the only two nations on the list that are not majority or overwhelmingly Muslim.
The two dissenting jurists were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. The other seven voted to strike down the lower-court orders that blocked the policy.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the ruling "a substantial victory for the safety and security of the American people."
"The Constitution gives the President the responsibility and power to protect this country from all threats foreign and domestic, and this order remains vital to accomplishing those goals," he said in a statement.
White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said the decision wasn't a surprise.
"The proclamation is lawful and essential to protecting our homeland," he told reporters aboard Air Force One. "We look forward to presenting a fuller defense of the proclamation as the pending cases work their way through the courts."
Both the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, are set to hold arguments on the legality of the latest version of the order this week.
Federal judges in Maryland (4th Circuit) and Hawaii (9th Circuit) derailed the first two versions by issuing rulings that blocked those executive actions.
The Supreme Court gave no reason for its decision, but the lopsided 7-2 margin casts a shadow over the ongoing litigation.
Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said he predicts the 4th and 9th circuits will reverse the lower courts after the high court's decision on Monday.
"When Justice Kennedy votes to grant a stay, in almost all cases, the court of appeals will be reversed," he tweeted. "Note to CA4 and CA9: You will be reversed."
Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, denounced the court, saying Mr. Trump's "anti-Muslim prejudice is no secret."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the high court's decision would separate family members and harm Muslim communities.
"This decision ignores the very real human consequences to American citizens and their families abroad imposed by President Trump's Muslim Ban 3.0," said CAIR National Litigation Director Lena Masri.
Meanwhile, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the high court.
"The president is fulfilling his solemn duty to protect Texans and all Americans from the threat of terror," he said.
Mr. Paxton led a 12-state coalition in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the president's travel ban, arguing that it was crafted to protect the nation from terrorism and should be implemented.
The Supreme Court's unsigned order also urged the lower courts to quickly rule on the appeals.
Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, who filed the case pending in the 9th Circuit, said the ruling made a speedy resolution of the case all the more urgent.
"Today's ruling allows for a full travel ban while courts decide upon the merits of Travel Ban 3.0, with its stated expectation that the courts consider the issues, and do so quickly," he said. "We agree a speedy resolution is needed for the sake of our universities, our businesses and, most of all, for people marginalized by this unlawful order."
Americans United, a religious liberty watchdog group that is litigating one of the cases, vowed to keep fighting.
"Every day this ban is in place is a day that families and loved ones are kept apart because of who they are and what they believe. That tramples American values of religious liberty and fairness. History does not look kindly on this kind of discrimination," said Eric Rothschild, the group's senior litigation counsel.
"Americans United, our allies and all fair-minded Americans will continue to fight this injustice every step of the way," he said.
Legal battles over prior versions of the extreme vetting order, which involved some but not all of the current countries, have played out in courts across the U.S. throughout Mr. Trump's first year in office.
The surprise rollout of the initial travel ban in January brought chaos to airports across the country as some foreign travelers were detained, and activists descended on travel hubs to protest the policy.
After the vetting order was put on hold by courts that questioned its constitutionality, the Trump administration went back to the drawing board to draft a second version intended to pause all admissions from six countries identified as high risks for terrorist travel and to halt all refugee admissions for 120 days.
The Supreme Court later weighed in on that version of the ban, finding in June that the administration could not enforce the ban against people who have a "bona fide" relationship with people or entities in the U.S.
That travel ban has since expired, and the administration proposed the third version, which it said was based on a monthslong review of nearly 200 countries' policies on information-sharing with the U.S. about their citizens.
The Department of Homeland Security assessment produced a long list of countries that either were unwilling or unable to cooperate. After working through those problems and winning promises of better help, the list was whittled to eight.
But those new justifications failed to win over the two federal judges in Maryland and Hawaii who ruled against the third version of the ban.
U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson, who was appointed to the federal court in Hawaii by President Obama, was critical of the third version. He said the president didn't do enough to prove why the U.S. needed additional restrictions on visitors from the six countries.
U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang in Maryland, also an Obama appointee, said the third attempt was still poisoned by Mr. Trump's comments on the campaign trail, which he said showed a "religious animus" toward Muslims.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court last week, Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued that the president has broad constitutional and statutory authority to issue executive orders limiting immigration. Unlike the previous two versions of the travel ban, Mr. Francisco wrote, the latest version was backed up by the comprehensive review.
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.