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Obama's Immigration Plan Defeated by Deadlocked Supreme Court

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

The Supreme Court split four to four today in a case challenging one President Obama's signature immigration reform efforts. The case, United States v. Texas, was one of the Court's highest profile disputes of the term, touching on a host of significant issues, from the ability of states to challenge federal immigration programs, to the extent of executive branch power, and to, not insignificantly, the status of millions of immigrants.

The split essentially puts the program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents or DAPA, on hold for the foreseeable future, leaving in place an injunction shutting down the program nationwide.

The Court's Most Important Non-Decision So Far

The Court has deadlocked several times since Justice Scalia's death left the Court evenly divided earlier this term. Today's ruling is by far the most high-profile deadlock of the term, however. Unable to reach a consensus, the split Court issued a ruling that is just one sentence long, as it does in all 4-4 ties:

The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.

That leaves in place the Fifth Circuit ruling upholding a nation-wide injunction issued by Judge Andrew Hanen of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Judge Hanen halted the program in February 2015, largely on administrative law grounds, finding that the change failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act's notice and comment requirements.

But the case raised many significant issues beyond APA procedure. Perhaps the largest of these issues was the extent of executive power to act on matters of immigration. Frustrated by years of Congressional inaction on immigration, President Obama enacted DAPA via executive order, instructing federal immigration agencies to focus their deportation efforts on criminals, rather than parents of American citizens and residents. DAPA defers deportation actions against such parents and provides them a path towards working legally in the country. 

The states had argued that this act violated the Constitution's Take Care Clause, which requires the President to faithfully execute the laws as they exist.

At question too was whether the states could even sue. While acknowledging that immigration policy was largely the purview of the executive branch, the 26 states that challenged the law argued that DAPA would force them to provide benefits to applicable immigrants. In the case of Texas, that meant drivers' licenses. Was that enough of an injury to allow them to sue?

Today's split means that these questions won't be answered anytime soon.

What's Next?

In the meantime, DAPA remains on hold, as it has been for over a year. But the controversy over the program won't go away just yet. The case will continue to work its way back through the courts and will soon be before Judge Hanen again. And Judge Hanen is no stranger to headline-making rulings. Even as the Supreme Court considered the current case, Judge Hanen was ordering all Department of Justice attorneys to undergo ethics training, upset by potential misrepresentations made by DOJ lawyers in his court.

Meanwhile, the federal government could petition for a rehearing, should the Supreme Court become fully-staffed once again.

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