Law & the Courts

Obama’s Amnesty Hits a Legal Roadblock

If a Texas judge’s temporary stay against it is upheld, it could be headed to the Supreme Court.

Late Monday, a federal district judge in Texas issued a temporary injunction that bars the Obama administration from proceeding with the president’s unilateral decree of effective amnesty for millions of illegal aliens.

To be clear, the order issued by Judge Andrew Hanen of the U.S. court for the southern district of Texas in Brownsville is a temporary stay. It is not a ruling on the merits of the lawsuit brought by 26 states that claim they will suffer profound financial and other damage from the president’s lawless executive action — an action that Obama himself many times conceded would be lawless before he finally took it late last year.

Today, the Justice Department will seek an emergency order from the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to block Judge Hanen’s injunction. There is a good chance the Justice Department will succeed, at least temporarily. If the Fifth Circuit blocks the injunction, that, too, would not be a ruling on the merits of the case. It would just mean a return to the status quo that allows Obama to proceed with the implementation of his amnesty decree.

I imagine we will know by late this afternoon whether the Fifth Circuit will set aside the district court’s injunction.

Judge Hanen’s order would temporarily prevent the Obama administration from implementing the executive action — in particular, the issuance of positive legal benefits, like work permits, for illegal aliens despite the lack of statutory authorization. The stay would also allow Judge Hanen a chance to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case. Again, he has not at this point conclusively ruled that Obama’s executive amnesty violates the Constitution or other federal law.

To justify issuing the stay, however, he had to decide that the states that brought the lawsuit had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. That is, in Hanen’s judgment, they have shown that they probably (1) have standing to sue, (2) will show that Obama violated the law, and (3) will suffer concrete harm from the violation (particularly economic harm).

The big question in the case is standing: Is the case properly brought by the states? If the Fifth Circuit, on an emergency appeal of the stay by the Justice Department, decides there is a likelihood that the states do not have standing, then it will vacate Judge Hanen’s stay. The appellate court could find a probability that standing is lacking because, for example, federal jurisprudence holds that immigration is mainly a federal responsibility, or because the harm the states say they will suffer from the executive amnesty is too speculative. (Again, note that we are talking about “likelihood” and “probability” here because these are preliminary, predictive determinations. The case has not been fully presented and ruled upon at this point.)

If the Fifth Circuit were to vacate the stay, that, again, would not be a ruling on the merits of the case. It would simply revert matters to where they stood before Judge Hanen’s order on Monday, meaning the administration could move ahead with its plans while we await a final ruling on the merits from Judge Hanen.

If, on the Justice Department’s emergency appeal, the Fifth Circuit were to decline to disturb Judge Hanen’s stay, there are at least three possibilities: (1) the Justice Department could appeal Judge Hanen’s stay to the Supreme Court; (2) the administration could accept the decision and hold off implementation of the executive order while waiting for Judge Hanen to issue a final ruling (which, all signs indicate, will go against the president); or (3) the president could do what he often does with statutes and court decisions that interfere with his agenda: simply ignore the judicial stay and begin implementing his amnesty decree.

#page#I would bet on (1), an appeal to the Supreme Court. I do believe that Obama is inclined to (3), the lawless route, if all else fails. Obviously, however, the president would rather win in court if he can. That necessitates moving ahead with the judicial process while there are still rounds to play. The administration has a decent chance of getting the stay vacated in either the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court. Even if that fails, and Judge Hanen, as expected, renders a final decision against the president, the administration has a decent shot at getting such a ruling reversed by the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court. I expect the president to play this out. It may take many months, at least, and during that time there is a reasonable chance that some tribunal will lift the stay and allow him to begin implementing the amnesty pending a final appellate ruling on the merits.

This underscores what I have been arguing for some time. The courts are a very unlikely avenue for checking presidential lawlessness. The proper constitutional way to check the president’s executive order is for Congress to deny the funding needed to implement it. That is what Republicans in the House have done, by fully funding the lawful activities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) but denying the funding for the unlawful executive amnesty. Democrats are blocking that legislation in the Senate, in the hope that, as the budget deadline approaches, the pro-Obama press (with regrettable help from George Will and Senator John McCain, among others) will convince the country that it is somehow the Republicans who are “shutting down” DHS.

On that score, I will briefly repeat what I’ve contended before:

‐The fact that politicians hang a sign that says “Homeland Security” on a dysfunctional bureaucratic sprawl does not mean that denying funds to that bureaucracy would harm actual homeland security in any material way.

‐We have a DHS only because of typical Beltway overreaction to a crisis — the need to be seen as “doing something” in response to public anger over the government’s misfeasance prior to the 9/11 attacks.

‐Homeland security in the United States is more than adequately provided for by the hundreds of billions of dollars that continue to be spent each year — and that Congress has already approved for this year — on the Justice Department, the FBI, the 17-agency intelligence community, the armed forces, and state and local police forces.

‐We did not have a DHS before 2003, and if it disappeared tomorrow, no one would miss it.

‐The agencies in DHS that actually contribute to protection of the homeland could easily be absorbed by other government departments (where they were housed before DHS’s creation).

‐Under Obama, the immigration law-enforcement components of DHS are not enforcing the immigration laws. Why should taxpayers expend billions of dollars on agencies that do not fulfill, and under this president have no intention of fulfilling, the mission that is the rationale for the funding?

In any event, as we await the next round in the courts, the speedy and certain way to stop a lawless president is to deny him the money he needs to carry out his designs.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

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