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Supreme Court Tie Blocks President’s Immigration Actions

Today, a tie vote by the short-handed Supreme Court essentially blocked President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The programs in question would have shielded up to 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work in the United States. The case now goes back to the lower courts. Below is primer on the case and decision.

What was the case about?

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Two actions would grant certain unauthorized immigrants “deferred action,” which would protect them from deportation and allow them to work:

  • Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) would grant deferred action to as many as 4 million unauthorized individuals who are parents of U.S. citizens or Legal Permanent Residents, if they met certain criteria.
  • Expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) would have expanded the existing DACA program that began in 2012 for individuals brought to the United States as children.

How did it get to the Supreme Court?

The programs were scheduled to begin as early as February 2015. However, in December 2014, a group of states led by Texas sued the federal government to stop implementation of the deferred action programs. Before the administration was to begin implementing these new programs, the states asked for a preliminary injunction (a court order stopping the administration from proceeding with the actions) while the court decided the legality of the program, and it was granted by a federal judge in February 2015 and then upheld on appeal to the fifth circuit court.

On January 19, 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case filed by the states against President Obama’s actions. The three underlying questions the court considered were:

  1. Do the states have “standing” to bring the lawsuit—i.e. claim that they have suffered harm due to the president’s actions?
  2. Are the president’s actions allowed under the law or did he overstep his authority?
  3. Do the actions show that the president has “tak[en] care that the law be faithfully executed” as required under Article II of the Constitution?

How did SCOTUS rule?

While the case was technically still about a ruling on the injunction, the Supreme Court was also dealing with the legality of the actions and merits of the case—as evidenced by adding the constitutional question. Therefore, a majority decision in favor of either the Obama administration or the states would have meant that the DAPA program would either be ruled legal or illegal and either go into effect immediately or be permanently scrapped.

Instead, the short-handed Supreme Court tied 4-4, setting no national precedent by not making a ruling on the legality or constitutionality of the president’s executive actions. However, the tied ruling leaves the injunction in place, blocking the programs for the remainder of President Obama’s term. The case will now go back to the lower courts, which will have to decide on the merits of the case and legality of the executive actions. Technically, this means that the case could return to the Supreme Court in the future if the lower courts’ decisions are appealed by either side, but much depends on whether the next president will choose to undo the actions or stop defending the case. Additionally, if a ninth justice is confirmed, the president could ask for a rehearing before the Supreme Court. Congress could also pass reform legislation that could render the case moot.

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