The justices’ one-sentence opinion on Thursday marks a major setback for the administration, effectively killing the plan for the duration of Obama’s presidency.
The judgment could have significant political and legal consequences in a presidential election year highlighted by competing rhetoric over immigration. As the ruling was announced from the bench, pro-immigration activists filled the sidewalk in front of the court, some crying as the ruling became public. Critics of the policy touted the ruling as a strong statement against “executive abuses.”
“The Constitution is clear: The president is not permitted to write laws—only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore the separation of powers,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement, adding that the ruling rendered Obama’s actions “null and void.”
The 4-4 tie vote sets no national precedent but leaves in place the ruling by the lower court. In this case, the federal appeals court in New Orleans said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress.
Texas led 26 Republican-dominated states in challenging the program Obama announced in November 2014. Congressional Republicans also backed the states’ lawsuit.
The split decision underscores the importance of the current high court vacancy and the appointment of a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. So far, Senate Republicans have not considered Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
The decision also lands in the middle of a heated election season in which immigration is a central issue. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, won the primaries while railing against Obama administration immigration policies as dangerous.
Democrats have, in turn, called his rhetoric racially divisive while defending the administration’s move to expand existing programs that would effectively give temporary legal status to some undocumented residents.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton countered Ryan’s statement saying the decision was “purely procedural” and leaves “no doubt” the programs were within the president’s authority. Referencing the 4-4 split on the court, she again urged the Senate to give Obama’s nominee to fill the remaining court vacancy a vote.
“Today’s deadlocked decision from the Supreme Court is unacceptable, and show us all just how high the stakes are in this election,” Clinton said in a statement.
The immigration case dealt with two separate Obama programs. One would allow undocumented immigrants who are parents of either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation. The other would expand an existing program to protect from deportation a larger population of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Obama decided to move forward after Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, and the chances for an immigration overhaul, already remote, were further diminished.
The Senate had passed a broad immigration bill with Democratic and Republican support in 2013, but the measure went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
The states quickly went to court to block the Obama initiatives.
Their lawsuit was heard initially by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas. Hanen previously had criticized the administration for lax immigration enforcement. Hanen sided with the states, blocking the programs from taking effect. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled for the states, and the Justice Department rushed an appeal to the high court so that it could be heard this term.