Politically, Thursday’s nonruling on President Barack Obama’s immigration executive order led the Supreme Court highlight reel for the day.
Practically, a more important action was the court’s decision upholding the use of racial preferences in student admissions to the University of Texas at Austin.
The high court deadlocked 4-4 on Obama’s 2014 plan giving relief from deportation to around 4 million immigrants living in the country illegally, including more than 1 million in Texas. The tie meant that lower court decisions that temporarily blocked the plan remain in effect.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called that “a victory for all law-abiding Americans” against Obama’s “unauthorized abuse of presidential power.”
Texas and several other states objected to the president’s plan.
Human Rights Watch said “millions of unauthorized immigrants will be plunged back into limbo.”
But the bottom line is less definitive than either side suggests.
The case goes back to U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville for a trial. While that means the plan won’t take effect while Obama is in office, it’s not yet a definitive defeat of what he sought to do.
It’s another loud reminder (and who needed reminding?) that Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Meanwhile — remarkably to many people — the court ruled 4-3 that UT Austin can use race in its student admission decisions. Ironically, it’s been 52 years almost to the day since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
This case has an agonizingly long history, dating to when Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land was denied admission to UT Austin in 2008. She sued, her lawyers arguing that less qualified minority applicants were admitted under UT’s policy that included consideration of race.
Lower courts ruled in the university’s favor, but in 2013 the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court for stricter review. The appeals court again ruled for UT, and now the Supreme Court has, too.
The justices said the university has “a continuing obligation” to periodically review the constitutionality and effectiveness of its policy, but for now it passes muster.
In a similar 2003 Supreme Court ruling, now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
On Thursday, the court said we’re not there yet.