Immigration prompts role reversal at Supreme Court

By Josh Gerstein

For decades, liberals have been pushing to broaden access to the courts, inviting judges to wade into disputes over environmental issues, education and even immigration. Conservatives have been fighting that trend, arguing that only those suffering direct, concrete impacts should be able to challenge those policies in the legal system.

In a disorienting role reversal, when the Supreme Court meets Monday to take up President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, those two camps will be making precisely the opposite arguments.

Texas and 25 other states challenging Obama’s immigration plan are asking the high court to find that the states have the legal standing to sue because of expected burdens on state coffers and threats to the well-being of state residents. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and its liberal allies contend those impacts are so indirect and contingent that the states don’t even have the right to question the president’s authority to grant quasi-legal status and work permits to up to five million illegal immigrants.

Some lawyers see rank opportunism at play.

“It really is hilarious,” said former federal appeals court judge Michael McConnell, who’s now a law professor at Stanford backing the Texas-led suit. “It was a tenet of liberal faith that the courthouse doors should be wide open …It wasn’t long ago liberals were complaining about the imperial presidency and how George Bush was doing things not authorized by Congress. That switched, too. Everything switches.”

Liberals contend they are just asking the court’s conservatives like Chief Justice John Roberts to live by the same principles they have been articulating for years about limiting the involvement of the courts to disputes where a party can show direct harm from a federal government action.

“John Roberts has consistently voted to close the courthouse doors. He’s consistently voted to limit parties’ ability to sue,” said Brianne Gorod of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “If he were to change his prior views on standing here … it might look like his views on standing were being driven not by the law but by his view of the politics of the case.”

In his 2007 dissenting opinion in a case involving a fight between states and the Bush Administration over the federal government’s failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Roberts rejected an approach that “made standing seem a lawyer’s game, rather than a fundamental limitation ensuring that courts function as courts and not intrude on the politically accountable branches.”

However, Roberts was on the losing side in that global warming case, Massachusetts v. EPA. The court split 5-4, with liberal Republican-appointed Justice John Paul Stevens and frequent swing Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court’s Democratic appointees to grant the states’ standing on the basis of potential future harm to their shorelines.

The fight over Obama’s immigration plan appears to present a curious dilemma for Roberts: adopt the court’s ruling in the EPA case and accept a similar argument for state standing in the Texas case, or stick with the rationale of his dissent a decade ago and tell the states to resolve their grievances through the political process.

“Roberts could take the position that we’ve had that fight and I lost,” said John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University.

McConnell said Roberts doesn’t have to delve back into the debate from the global warming case because the impact Texas has shown is already a more tangible one: Texas loses more than $100 on every driver’s license, potentially adding up to millions of dollars when immigrants granted “deferred action” under Obama’s programs seek driving permits. The district court judge who blocked Obama’s move said the expected expenditures on licenses were enough to give Texas standing.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he’s confident of his state’s argument on that point. “The standing issue is also very clear. We gave evidence to the trial court [that] we would suffer irreparable harm just in the cost of drivers licenses,” Paxton told POLITICO. “When the president decided he was going to change the law, it resulted in higher costs to the state [and] probably to all states.”

“If Texas is right about that, they have standing on a basis that is very specific and a perfectly ordinary, dollars-and-cents claim,” McConnell said.

However, frequent Supreme Court litigator Andrew Pincus warned that allowing Texas and the other states to pursue a claim based on an alleged impact on state finances could unleash a flurry of lawsuits that would dramatically expand the role of the courts.

“Texas’s argument would radically expand judicial power in a way that’s really unprecedented in our history … If a state can sue every time it has increased costs because of something the federal government does …that’s really a recipe for opening the federal courts to every policy dispute between states and the federal government,” said Pincus, a partner at law firm Mayer Brown. “That’s a recipe for judicial supremacy.”

Such an argument that might have had some appeal to judges like late Justice Antonin Scalia, who promoted the notion that the Constitution requires a party bringing a lawsuit to show “particularized” injury.

Other conservatives are less concerned that upholding Texas’ standing in the immigration case would unleash a parade of horribles pulling judges into all manner of political fights. Eastman noted that a judge might well find a state has standing in a particular case, but still find its legal claims are lacking.

“States challenging federal regulations like that is a serious matter. It’s not going to happen willy-nilly … Instead of cutting out the door on the front end, let’s just decide it on the merits,” he said. “I don’t think it results in a transfer of power to the courts.”

Some of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions to turn aside cases on standing grounds look, with the passage of time, like efforts to dodge the obvious.

In February 2013, the court voted, 5-4, to dismiss a challenge to the National Security Agency’s wiretapping programs. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion holding that the lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who brought the suit didn’t have enough evidence that they were being personally targeted by the NSA’s efforts.

Four months later, leaks from NSA contractor Edward Snowden laid bare much of the U.S. Government’s spying efforts, including broad collection of information on billions of phone calls made by Americans. A new wave of lawsuits were launched, with much of the earlier standing dispute pushed to the side.

Using standing grounds to resolve the case over Obama’s immigration executive actions could prove to be an attractive option for some of the justices because it avoids a ruling on some of the more fundamental executive power issues at stake, like whether the “deferred action” programs are simply exercises of prosecutorial discretion or whether they exceed the authority Congress granted when writing immigration laws.

It’s possible the shorthanded court could avoid a potential 4-4 deadlock on the merits by issuing a ruling that Texas and the other states lack standing. There’s also a chance the court could say the states didn’t demonstrate their standing clearly enough to warrant the injunction against Obama’s program, but they might be able to show a significant disruption to their activities if the case goes to trial.

Kennedy and Roberts will be the two most closely watched justices on Monday.

In 2012, Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in a case that largely sided with the federal government over a lawsuit against an Arizona anti-illegal-immigration law. Kennedy found that the federal government has “broad and undoubted power over the subject of immigration.” Roberts joined Kennedy and three of the courts liberal justices in that ruling, while Scalia, Alito and Thomas parted company with aspects of the decision.

Kennedy has sometimes shown concern about state sovereignty, but is willing to push those concerns aside in specific cases.

“With Roberts, it’s a tough call,” said Dru Stevenson, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “Roberts is more of an institutionalist than the other conservative justices … He’s a political realist who doesn’t want to have a constitutional showdown with the White House, while the other conservatives wouldn’t mind that at all … He is a little bit of a wild card in this.”

Stevenson said he would not be surprise to see Roberts lead a court majority seeking to squelch the case on standing grounds. “They really have an incentive to punt [using] the standing issue right now,” the professor said.

That would be a huge win for the Obama Administration and for pro-immigration groups. But some liberals say they fear that such a result could make it even harder for environmentalists, unions and liberal-leaning states to use the courts to challenge future actions by a Democratic or Republican president.

“It strikes me as having the right fight on the wrong territory,” said University of Alabama law professor Heather Elliott, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I worry that if groups that support the current administration’s position get too out there with their arguments about standing … that’s going to come back to bite when we have the next change in administration. Now you want to get in the courthouse door, but you’re stuck with the doctrine you’ve set up to keep other people out.”