Immigration Deadlock Leaves Obama, Supreme Court Feeling a Void

  • Obama renews calls for Senate to take up Garland nomination
  • 4-4 decision lets lower court ruling block deporation policy

The vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court finally caught up with it.

In splitting 4-4 on President Barack Obama’s immigration plan, the justices showed the perils of a shorthanded Supreme Court. They also helped fuel renewed Democratic calls for Senate Republicans to take up Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the opening created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s Feb. 13 death.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

The Thursday ruling, with no explanation or vote breakdown, kills one of Obama’s biggest initiatives for the duration of his presidency. Unable to muster a majority either way, the justices let a conservative federal appeals court determine the policy’s fate with its ruling that the president overstepped his authority. The policy would have shielded up to 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation and let them seek work permits.

Obama and other Democrats were quick to blame Republicans for the dysfunction.

"This is part of the consequence of the Republican failure so far to give a fair hearing to Mr. Merrick Garland," Obama said at the White House. "Republicans in Congress currently are willfully preventing the Supreme Court from being fully staffed and functioning as our founders intended."

For a QuickTake explainer on immigration reform’s many plot twists, click here.

In truth, it’s not clear Garland could have saved the policy given the realities of the calendar. Obama nominated Garland on March 16, and even in less politically charged times the confirmation process tends to take a couple months.

Had Garland joined the court in mid-May, that would have been too late to participate in the April 18 argument.

The justices will issue the final opinions of their nine-month term on Monday, including their first decision on abortion since 2007 and a public-corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

The immigration case is one of four that have divided the Supreme Court evenly this term. In another high-profile dispute, the court deadlocked in March, allowing more than 20 states to continue requiring public-sector workers to help fund the unions that represent them.

No National Precedent

In one sense, the administration got lucky in the immigration case. If Scalia had still been on the court, the most likely outcome would have been a 5-4 decision curbing presidential powers -- and setting a binding nationwide precedent.

"If we have a full court issuing a full opinion on anything, then we take it seriously," Obama said. "This, we have to abide by, but it wasn’t any kind of value statement or a decision on the merits on these issues."

The deadlock leaves room for the issue to return to the court once it is at full strength. And if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, that could be a court that for the first time since 1969 has a majority of Democratic appointees.

Republicans portrayed the deadlock as a vindication of their position that Obama exceeded his authority under the Constitution and the federal immigration laws.

‘Abuse’ of Power

"The action taken by the president was an unauthorized abuse of presidential power that trampled the Constitution," said Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose state led the challenge to the Obama immigration policy, in a statement. "The Supreme Court rightly denied the president the ability to grant amnesty contrary to immigration laws."

The ruling puts even more focus on the presidential race between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who has said he would deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants. Republicans say the winner of the election should fill the Scalia vacancy.

"This split political decision demonstrates why the American people need to decide the direction of the court through their votes for president and Senate in November," Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said in a statement.

Affirmative Action

Ironically, the Scalia vacancy may have helped avert a deadlock in the other major ruling released Thursday, a 4-3 decision upholding an affirmative action policy at the University of Texas. Scalia appeared to be a vote against the policy when the court heard arguments in December. A 4-4 ruling would have affirmed an appeals court decision upholding the Texas plan, but without setting any nationwide precedent.

His absence instead cleared the way for a surprise victory for affirmative action. Justice Elena Kagan, a member of the court’s liberal wing, didn’t take part in that case because she played a role in the litigation as an Obama administration lawyer.

The case is United States v. Texas, 15-674.

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