For Obama, setbacks from a divided Supreme Court

By Lawrence Hurley

The U.S. Supreme Court breaks for the summer this week, having dealt high-profile setbacks to President Barack Obama on issues important to his liberal legacy, notably on immigration and climate change.

This will be the high court’s last full nine-month term of the Democratic president’s administration. Obama leaves office in January 2017.

The court was one shy of its full strength nine members much of this term due to the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13. His absence affected the outcome of some major cases. Four cases, including the immigration dispute, ended in 4-4 splits that left lower court rulings in place.

There was little Obama could do about it. Even if the Republican-led U.S. Senate had accepted Obama’s March 16 nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia, it was unlikely he would have made it to the bench in time to hear the term’s final round of arguments in April.

Hoping their candidate wins the presidential election in November, Republicans insist the choice of Scalia’s successor should fall to the next president.

The administration did score some major wins on abortion and other social issues, but these were when it intervened in cases where it was not directly involved.


Obama’s biggest loss came last Thursday on his bid to protect up to four million immigrants from deportation. The 4-4 deadlock will keep him from taking major action on immigration reform, a top policy aim, before he leaves office.

In a second major blow to Obama’s legacy, the court unexpectedly put on hold sweeping federal regulations meant to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the centerpiece of his administration’s climate change strategy..

That decision by a 5-4 vote, days before Scalia’s death, effectively put off a ruling on the regulation until after a legal challenge is completed – sometime after the next president enters the White House – and prevented the new regulations from being implemented.

On healthcare, the administration lost narrowly to Christian groups that sought an exemption to a provision of his signature law known as Obamacare requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception.

The high court sent that dispute back to lower courts without deciding the main legal issue, throwing out a series of rulings in the government’s favor.

The administration lost some other big cases in which it was directly involved, including former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s successful appeal of his corruption convictions.


A silver lining for the administration came in cases where it lent its support, as a friend of the court, to advocates for abortion rights and for race-based university admissions to offset years of discrimination.

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal leaning Constitutional Accountability Center, said Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer until he stepped down last week, deserved some credit for the ruling on Monday striking down tough abortion restrictions in Texas due to his performance during the oral argument.

Last Thursday, the court upheld consideration of race as an acceptable factor in admissions at the University of Texas. Had Scalia lived, the court might have deadlocked 4-4 in that too.

One 4-4 decision went the administration’s way. The government supported unions that successfully fended off a conservative legal challenge. The divided court left in place a lower court ruling in favor of the unions.

With Scalia on the court, the conservative majority would likely have struck down fees that many states force workers to pay unions in lieu of dues to fund collective bargaining and other activities.

A loss for unions would have deprived unions representing teachers, police, transit workers, firefighters and other government employees of millions of dollars annually and diminished their political clout.

The administration also scored a significant victory when the court upheld an electricity-markets regulation that encourages big power users like factories to cut consumption at peak times, rejecting a challenge brought by electric utilities.

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