The Supreme Court's Immigration Ruling Has One Silver Lining

On Thursday, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on a case challenging President Obama’s executive action on immigration. A lower court had blocked the initiatives from taking effect, and because SCOTUS tied on the case, that lower court’s ruling will stand for the time being. This is certainly a blow to the administration’s efforts — but there is at least one silver lining to the Supreme Court’s immigration ruling.

The case in question, United States v. Texas, concerned a 2014 initiative by Obama that would have shielded up to 4.5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Attorneys general in several states challenged the policy in court, arguing that Obama had overstepped his authority when issuing it, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction against the policy, thus preventing it from being implemented. That injunction will now remain in place indefinitely.

Make no mistake: This is a big setback for proponents of more lenient immigration policies, and an even bigger setback to the millions of immigrants who will be affected by it. But the result wasn’t as bad as it could have been for one big reason: The Supreme Court didn’t actually rule against the policy. It merely reached a tie, and those are two very different things.

Normally, when the Supreme Court rules on a case, that ruling establishes a national precedent. The decision in Roe v. Wade, for example, effectively legalized abortion throughout the country. But in order for a precedent to be set, a majority of the court’s members have to agree on whatever that precedent is. This did not happen on Thursday.

Instead, the court reached a 4-4 tie, which has a much different effect. In the event of a tie, the ruling from the next-highest court (in this case, the 5th Circuit) stands — but that ruling doesn't set a national precedent. Whatever legal issues were at question in the case remain, in essence, unsettled, and up for debate.

With its decision on Thursday, the court didn’t actually strike down Obama’s immigration policies; not in any permanent sense, at least. Rather, it issued* a temporary injunction against the policies. This will prevent them from taking effect now, but not permanently. The court could hear the case again in the future, and it could well decide to uphold the policies.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The reason the court tied, by the way, is because the Supreme Court seat once held by Antonin Scalia still has not been filled. It hasn’t been filled because Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. In this sense, the can has been kicked down the road. The next president will likely appoint Scalia’s successor, and that successor could be the tie-breaking vote on the immigration case if the court decides to hear it again.

All of this is surely cold comfort for the millions of undocumented immigrants who, thanks to the court’s ruling Thursday, won’t be protected from deportation. But from a policy standpoint, a temporary injunction is much more desirable than a national precedent, and Obama’s immigration order could very well live to see another day.

*To be more precise, the 5th Circuit issued an injunction, and SCOTUS allowed that injunction to stand. The result is the same.