Appeals Court Immigration Decision Could Head to Supreme Court

Posted November 9, 2015 at 8:33pm

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled against the Obama administration late Monday in the main challenge to sweeping immigration executive actions announced a year ago.

The order prevents the administration from implementing the November 2014 executive actions that would expand deportation deferrals and work benefits for millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally.

The ruling by a three-judge panel, which was not a surprise, sets up a possible appeal from government lawyers to the full 5th Circuit based in New Orleans or to the Supreme Court, which is now President Barack Obama’s best shot at implementing his actions.

The timing and the court deadlines for the appeal process, however, might make it difficult for the Supreme Court to accept for the term ending in June.

The National Immigration Law Center urged the Justice Department to seek an immediate review from the Supreme Court.

The DOJ said in a statement that it disagrees with the 5th Circuit’s ruling and that the department is “reviewing the opinion to determine how best to proceed.” 

The 5th Circuit panel split 2-1 in the 135-page decision. Judges Jennifer Walker Elrod and Jerry Smith rejected the government’s arguments in the 70-page main opinion and declined to lift an injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen.

Hanen in February found Texas has standing to file the lawsuit because of potential costs to the state and an injunction would keep the status quo until the legal challenge is finally decided.

The 5th Circuit majority wrote that Texas and the other states have a legal right to challenge the federal government’s actions on immigration because the states could face millions of dollars in costs if the immigrants got drivers licenses and other benefits.

That could be up to four million immigrants, the majority said, adding that “the government has given us no reason to doubt” Hanen’s conclusion that retracting those benefits would be difficult and maybe impossible.

“The public interest clearly favors an injunction,” the majority opinion said.

The 5th Circuit also rejected the administration’s argument that the injunction should not apply nationwide, in part because beneficiaries would be free to travel between states that were or were not under the injunction.

Judge Carolyn Dineen King, in a dissent, said she would dismiss the case because the Obama administration is exercising its discretion on how to use limited funding, since there isn’t enough money to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

King wrote that “federal courts should not inject themselves into such matters of prosecutorial discretion.”


Supreme Timing

The government appears unlikely to prevail at the 5th Circuit, which Republican appointees dominate 10 to 5. If the Justice Department appeals the case to the Supreme Court, the justices would have to, at some point around late January, agree to hear the case.

If the Supreme Court does not hear the case this term, it would likely mean Obama would leave office without being able to implement his actions.

If the court accepts the case, it would likely issue a ruling late in June, in the heat of a presidential election in which executive actions on immigration could play a big role.

Even then, the actions might only be in effect until the next president takes office in January 2017. Many undocumented immigrants might be leery of identifying as such with the government to get benefits that might be taken away from them.