The Supreme Court on Thursday issued rulings in two high-profile cases touching on immigration and affirmative action. Here’s a brief rundown of what the court decided and what it means:
On affirmative action:
Q: What was the case?
A: Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981 centered on an accusation by a white woman, Abigail Fisher, who claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin, because of her race.
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Under a provision called the Top 10 percent rule (the actual percentage can vary in practice), Texas high school students who finish at the top of their class are guaranteed admission to the state’s public universities. The university evaluates the remaining students using a number of criteria, including race and ethnicity. This practice models other processes at colleges and universities throughout the country.
Q: What did the court rule?
A: The court rejected the challenge 4-3, handing supporters of affirmative action a major victory. In a lengthy dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. criticized his colleagues and defined the university’s practices as “affirmative action gone berserk.”
Justice Elena Kagan did not vote in the case after recusing herself because of her previous work on the case.
Q: What does the ruling mean?
A: The decision means that, after admitting the best performers, the university can still consider factors like race and ethnicity when evaluating other prospective students.
Q: What was the legal question?
A: The case concerned President Barack Obama’s attempt to shield undocumented immigrants who are parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents from deportation while providing them with work permits. When he introduced the plan in 2014, Obama virtually dared the Republican-controlled Congress to fight him on the issue, defending the series of executive actions as within his authority.
“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every Democratic president for the past half-century,” he said.
A Texas-led coalition of 26 states disagreed and challenged the plan, arguing that the action ignored procedures for rule changes and abused the power of his office. A federal judge put the program on hold in early 2015, an action that was later upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Q: What did the Supreme Court decide?
A: The court deadlocked 4-4 in the case: United States v. Texas No. 15-674. The stalemate was made possible by the empty seat left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
Q: What does the stalemate mean?
A: The decision represented a sharp blow to Obama’s ambitious plan, which he had hoped would become one of his lasting legacies. It also amplified the already contentious election-year debate over immigration policy and presidential authority.