Busy day at SCOTUS yields support for affirmative action, roadblock for executive orders

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the big day at the Supreme Court. A split on immigration puts millions in limbo. And justices uphold affirmative action.

We dig into both cases now with "NewsHour" regular Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent of "The National Law Journal."

Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know we need you here on days like this, especially on days like this.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the affirmative action case first.

MARCIA COYLE: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was it that the University of Texas case was about?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, actually, this was the second time the Supreme Court had looked at how the University of Texas uses race as a factor in its admissions policy.

Back in 2013, the case came to the Supreme Court by Abigail Fisher, a student who was denied admission to the university in 2008. And she claimed that the use of race as factor was why she was denied admission and that it violated the Constitution.

The Supreme Court, in 2013, led by Justice Kennedy, a 7-1 court, sent it back to the lower federal court, saying, you gave too much deference to the university's explanation. You have to give the toughest scrutiny we have under the Constitution, and the university has shown — has to show there are no workable race-neutral alternatives.

Well, that lower federal appellate court held hearings, briefings, upheld the plan again. It came back to the Supreme Court. Abigail Fisher brought it back with a conservative organization that had backed her from the beginning. And the Supreme Court today, in a surprising 4-3 decision, upheld the university's use of race, as Justice Kennedy said, a factor of factor of a factor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you say surprising?

MARCIA COYLE: He had never voted to uphold an affirmative action plan, although he had written and spoken about the importance of diversity in higher education. So, he did believe that it was an important, compelling interest to have a diverse student body.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this was — there were some really strong opinions voiced here. Justice Alito wrote, this is affirmative action gone wild?

MARCIA COYLE: Gone berserk, that's what he said.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIA COYLE: He actually read a summary of his very long dissent. His dissent was 51 pages.

He read a summary from the bench for 17 minutes, almost three times longer than Justice Kennedy's summary of his opinion. And he took issue with most of the points Justice Kennedy meant — made.

By the way, Justice Kennedy said that this plan is really sort of one of a kind for the University of Texas. Under Texas state law, the university is required to admit students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, and that has accounted for significant diversity.

But the university felt that the 25 percent places in the school that the 10 percent didn't cover didn't really create diversity in the classroom. So that's why it used race.

Justice Kennedy said that the 10 percent plan was really a blunt tool, that it just admitted students on the basis of class rank, and the other 25 percent were admitted under a holistic view that considered many things.

But Justice Alito, in his dissent, felt that this plan discriminated against Asian Americans, and he felt that the university had not provided the kind of evidence that it was required to provide to show that it had — it needed race to achieve the type of diversity it wanted in the classroom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me quickly move you to the other big decision the court handed down on President Obama's immigration executive orders. The justices were asked to rule on the legality of that. Tell us about how they came down.

MARCIA COYLE: Well, this was a plan that was announced in 2014 by the administration. And it did two things. It would delay temporarily the deportation of parents, undocumented parents of children who were American citizens and legal permanent residents.

And, also, it expanded a 2012 program that delayed the deportation of what we have come to call the dreamers, children who came to America with undocumented parents.

Texas and 26 other Republican-led states challenged that program in the lower federal court in Texas. It claimed that the president had exceeded his authority under federal immigration laws. A federal district court temporarily entered an injunction the halt it. A federal appellate court affirmed that injunction.

So it was the United States that came to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get that injunction lifted, also to confirm that the president had this authority. Well, the court did split 4-4 today. And what that means is basically that the injunction that is halting the program remains in effect. The case goes back to the lower federal district court for a trial on the merits.

The court's 4-4 decision here only affirms the judgment of the lower court on the preliminary injunction. It wasn't a decision on the merits of the claims that Texas and the 25 other states made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, can you — so, what can be read into this very brief statement the court made?

MARCIA COYLE: Nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIA COYLE: It — as I said, it's not a decision on the merits. It's not a precedent going forward that other courts can look to.

The case may come back to the Supreme Court at some point once it goes to trial and appeal. The United States also has the option of filing a petition for a rehearing in the U.S. Supreme Court, which the court can hold until there is a ninth justice if it so chooses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, the presumption is the absence of the late Justice Scalia clearly had an effect.

MARCIA COYLE: Very much so, as well as today there was another 4-4 decision in a case involving Indian tribes, important to them and American businesses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle, thanks very much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.

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