In mid-January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had granted cert to in United States v. Texas, meaning that it would consider the legal challenges, originally lodged by the state of Texas and many others, to President Obama’s November 2014 Executive Actions, including the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (“DAPA”) which would provide work authorization and protection from deportation to about 5 million undocumented immigrants. The specific issues in that case are (1) if a state has a right to sue the federal government if they are voluntarily providing a subsidy to aliens who would benefit from the deferred action program; (2) if the guidance in Obama’s Executive Action provisions are lawful; (3) if that guidance was subject to notice-and-comment procedures; and (4) if that guidance violates the Take Care clause of the US Constitution (Article II, Section 3). The fourth issue was added by the Supreme Court itself, suggesting the likelihood of a broad and detailed decision affecting far more than immigration law and reaching out into presidential power generally. A decision will likely be issued by the end of June 2016.
If the Supreme Court decides against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his coalition of 26 states, the Executive Actions could very well be carried out before the end of the year, and any new president will be forced to honor the policies as they stand when he or she comes into office (whether future changes can be made is a different matter, however). Indeed, the White House has stated publically that they intend to begin enrolling immigrants as soon as possible, and immigrants are likely to make haste in submitting their applications, given the political volatility of the program. Democratic presidential candidates have stated their intention to continue with the program while GOP candidates, predictably, have not.
The outcome of the case has undoubtedly been affected by Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden passing on February 13, 2016. The conservative judge was almost certain to come down on the side of Attorney General Paxton. While his missing vote is helpful to the immigrant cause, his absence could result in an equally divided court. A 4-4 tie verdict from the Supreme Court results in an automatic affirmation of the lower court’s ruling. In this case, the lower court favored the state challenge by a 2-1 split. While there may be an additional recourse in under those circumstances – a formal request for a re-hearing after a 9th justice has been appointed – the political machinations surrounding a quickly approaching presidential election are certain to slow down or halt any Supreme Court appointments, and any hope for DAPA as President Obama intended it become speculative at best. Indeed, a week ago Senate Republicans have sworn that they will not hold any confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee selected by President Obama. Of course, if five Supreme Court justices decide in the President’s favor and issue a positive decision this June, the DAPA program could likely become Obama’s departing legacy – and one of which he should be very proud.