Supreme court immigration review to stir passions as US prepares to vote


If ever there was a case designed to remind Americans of the importance of voting in elections, the supreme court’s Barack Obama’s just weeks before this summer’s presidential nominating conventions might very well be it.

The appeal itself has been inevitable since a lower court in Texas first challenged Obama’s plan to let some five million undocumented immigrants stay by instructing officials to deprioritise deportations. At the heart of the case is a constitutional question over the extent of the president’s executive authority of exactly the type that the nine supreme court justices are paid to consider.

For conservatives, it is a vital chance to rein in what they see as Obama’s imperial overreach: an undemocratic power grab that ignored the wishes of elected representatives in Congress who have refused to take up reform legislation.

For liberals, this is a chance for the court to remind Republicans that the president was elected to office too, and has a legitimate right to set law enforcement priorities and a mandate for wiping out what many believe to be among the greatest stains on civil society: the constant threat of deportation that keeps millions of productive and otherwise law-abiding US residents in the legal shadows.

Though the backing of the conservative-dominated bench cannot be taken for granted, supporters of the president were in a confident mood when it announced its decision on Tuesday to hear the appeal of the lower court rulings.

“The Republican obstructionism that has deprived millions from this important administrative relief is nothing short of shameful,” said New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, a leading champion of immigration reform.

“I have full confidence that the supreme court will rule that these programs can be implemented and relief will finally be granted to millions of immigrants who have waited far too long to come out of the shadows, register with the government, get work permits, and no longer live with the fear of being deported.”

Even a decision to uphold the White House executive action would, in theory, only buy undocumented immigrants a few more months’ grace before a new president had the opportunity to review the policy.

Campaigners would, of course, much prefer a comprehensive reform bill – of the type that received bipartisan support in the US Senate – which would be binding legislation on any future president.

But in the absence of any sign of progress on Capitol Hill, the hope is that Obama’s various unilateral steps will make it much harder for any future White House to reverse course. Donald Trump might not be deterred from trying, but courts and lawmakers alike may take a dim view of granting millions of people official legal certainty one minute and ripping it up the next.

The more immediate effect of hearing the case in April and probably ruling on it sometime in June, about a month before both parties gather for their nominating conventions, is that it will focus attention on the supreme court’s enormous influence over such questions and have a galvanizing effect on voters of either persuasion.

Though the court currently leans slightly conservative, the willingness of chief justice John Roberts and swing Reagan-appointee Anthony Kennedy to occasionally vote against their colleagues has played a vital part in cementing Obama’s legacy on everything from gay marriage to healthcare reform.

But at least three members of the current bench are nearing the age at which they are likely to die or retire during the tenure of the next president – giving him or her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decisively remake the court in their own image.

Many Democrats see this, above all else, as the most important issue of the presidential election. While Hillary Clinton supporters point to this ticking timebomb in the supreme court as a reason to play it safe in the nomination process and nominate a moderate, Bernie Sanders fans argue his passion is more likely to inspire the kind of voter turnout that will ensure a Republican does not get to pick the replacements.

A similar reminder of the importance of electability will now fall squarely into the laps of Republicans shortly before what is expected to be a contested party convention for them this summer. It is all well and good firing up the base with anti-immigration rhetoric, goes the argument among establishment types, but if Trump cannot win enough floating voters to ensure he picks the next supreme court, it will all be for nought.