The Supreme Court’s decision blocking President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration could have a far-reaching impact on both the November election and the next president.
In a 4-4 Thursday decision, the Supreme Court left in place the decision of a lower court in a case involving Obama’s plan to shield millions of immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation. The lower court ruled in United States v. Texas that the executive actions were an overreach of presidential power.
The case came down to whether jurists believed that Obama’s plan was simply his outline of how he planned to enforce existing immigration policies, which is within his purview, or whether his executive actions were actually the creation of new legislation, which would not be. Obama’s executive actions, outlined in 2014, aimed to focus deportation efforts on criminally engaged immigrants while providing relief to those who reside in the country illegally but are otherwise law-abiding and meet certain qualifications.
“The way I think about this whole case is that it’s really an example of a president trying to push the envelope as to where the outer-boundaries of his power are,” David Primo, associate professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, told Business Insider.
“You can make the argument that, had President Obama simply started informally enforcing the law as he outlined in his executive orders, this wouldn’t have been challenged,” he later added. “But the fact that he codified them, he wrote an executive order saying the law should be enforced as such. I think is why it became problematic.”
Another caveat to the decision is that, since it was split 4-4, the court made no determination on what is the appropriate scope for a president to use executive action. That, Primo said, makes it much more likely that the court will look to take a case involving the use of executive power in the near future to help settle the issue.
With that in mind, it could play a role in what both presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump attempt to do along the lines of using executive power. Push the boundary a bit too far, and either president could see their executive powers limited by a Supreme Court decision shortly thereafter.
“You can imagine if it’s a President Trump vs. a President Clinton, the desire to find out where that line is could be very different,” Primo said.
The specter of another case involving executive actions could also play a role in the kind of justice a Clinton or Trump chooses to nominate for not only the seat that is currently vacated after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, but future seats that are sure to open up within the next four years.
Had Scalia still be on the court, the decision would have almost certainly been 5-4 in favour of affirming the lower court’s decision. Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the void in March, but it’s unlikely he will receive a vote ahead of the November election.
“You could imagine that pivotal member of the court is going to establish precedent on this,” Primo said. “So it’s certainly conceivable that we could have a case, and so it could be the case that the next president says ‘you know, I don’t want to find out where the line is cause I might be wrong or if it surprises me, I will lose power I thought I had.'”
“So the next president might get up to that line that seems to exist and not try to find out exactly where the line is, so to not draw a constitutional challenge,” he continued. “Because if the Supreme Court doesn’t get a case, it can’t act.
Of course, since the decision not only has to do with executive powers, which might not be a wedge issue in November, and does have to do with immigration, which will be, the decision is going to have a big impact on the election.
“This was President Obama’s sort of last stand on immigration and he lost,” Primo said. “Now immigration is essentially dead until the next session of congress. This will mobilize both sides of the issue.”
Clinton and Trump both fired off responses to the decision, with Clinton calling it “unacceptable” and Trump assuring followers that the ruling “kept us all safe.”
“Today’s 4-4 Supreme Court ruling has blocked one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a President,” Trump said in a statement. “The executive amnesty from President Obama wiped away the immigration rules written by Congress, giving work permits and entitlement benefits to people illegally in the country.”
“This split decision also makes clear what is at stake in November,” he continued. “The election, and the Supreme Court appointments that come with it will decide whether or not we have a border and, hence, a country.”
But Trump, who has proposed building a massive border wall along the US-Mexico border in addition to ordering the deportation of millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally, may see his immigration plans hindered by the court’s decision. If the border wall, for example, were to be enacted through executive action, it could be the exact kind of move leading to a constitutional challenge and a Supreme Court case soon after.
The issue goes to the next level with this decision, because it makes it clear you need to have Congressional buy-in to get immigration reform,” Primo said. “This is going to move the immigration issue front and center.”
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