Roberts was in the majority in both cases, and Thursday’s ruling showed once again the pivotal role he now plays at the center of the court.
His low-key ruling was technical — the administration had not provided proper legal justification, he said, for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented by President Barack Obama eight years ago. It allows qualified enrollees to work, study and remain in the United States on a renewable permit.
Trump has often suggested the conservative-leaning Supreme Court would protect him against adverse rulings from lower-court judges. But Roberts has at times joined the court’s liberal members — as happened Thursday — to make clear for the president that his administration does not make the rules.
Whether this pattern continues over the coming weeks will frame what already has proved to be one of the court’s most controversial terms in years.
Still to come: decisions on Trump’s long-running legal battle to shield his private financial records from Congress and a New York prosecutor; several cases involving the separation of church and state; and the court’s first reexamination of abortion rights since Trump’s nominees, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, ascended to the bench.
The president said the court’s decisions this week showed why he needs the chance to further transform the court.
“We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd. Amendment & everything else,” Trump tweeted after Thursday’s ruling was announced. “Vote Trump 2020!” The missive was one of eight posts that also included his pledge to release by September a list of possible nominees for the bench if he is reelected in November. He added: “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”
Politicians on the other side of the issue were elated, even if they were as stunned as Trump seemed to be.
“I cannot — the Supreme Court, who would’ve thought, would have so many good decisions in one week, who would’ve thought . . . wow,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), seemingly overcome with emotion.
Trump has often seemed ambivalent about DACA recipients — lauding them at some points and declaring they are “no angels” at others — but his administration has tried since September 2017 to end the program. It was implemented as an executive action by Obama in 2012 after a failed congressional attempt at comprehensive immigration reform.
Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, advised the new administration to end it, saying it was illegal.
But lower courts found that directive questionable. At any rate, they said, the Department of Homeland Security did not properly weigh how ending the program would affect those who had come to rely on its protections against deportation, and the ability to work legally.
“The dispute before the court is not whether DHS may rescind DACA. All parties agree that it may. The dispute is instead primarily about the procedure the agency followed in doing so,” he wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
He added: “We address only whether the [Department of Homeland Security] complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.”
That goes well beyond whether hundreds of thousands of people would remain protected from deportation, Roberts wrote.
“Since 2012, DACA recipients have enrolled in degree programs, embarked on careers, started businesses, purchased homes, and even married and had children, all in reliance” on the DACA program, Roberts wrote, quoting from briefs in the case.
“The consequences of the rescission, [advocates] emphasize, would ‘radiate outward’ to DACA recipients’ families, including their 200,000 U.S.-citizen children, to the schools where DACA recipients study and teach, and to the employers who have invested time and money in training them.
. . . In addition, excluding DACA recipients from the lawful labor force may, they tell us, result in the loss of $215 billion in economic activity and an associated $60 billion in federal tax revenue over the next ten years.”
The decision was reminiscent of last term, when Roberts and the court’s liberals blocked the Trump administration from adding a question about citizenship to the census form sent to every household. They said the administration had not provided the true reason it wanted such information, and it had not properly followed procedure.
In Thursday’s ruling, Sotomayor disagreed with her colleagues in one area. They said DACA recipients do not have grounds to protest that ending the program was discriminatory. She pointed to Trump’s comments about immigrants from Mexico during the campaign and after he took office.
“I would not so readily
dismiss the allegation that an executive decision disproportionately harms the same racial group that the president branded as less desirable mere months earlier,” she wrote.
The court’s four most conservative justices dissented.
Justice Clarence Thomas said he agreed that the program was illegal from the start, and that the court should have recognized this rather than extending the legal fight.
“In implementing DACA, DHS under the Obama administration arrogated to itself power it was not given by Congress,” wrote Thomas, whose dissent was joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Gorsuch.
“Thus, every action taken by DHS under DACA is the unlawful exercise of power. Now, under the Trump administration, DHS has provided the most compelling reason to rescind DACA: The program was unlawful and would force DHS to continue acting unlawfully if it carried the program forward.”
He added: “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision. The court could have made clear that the solution respondents seek must come from the legislative branch.”
Alito noted that the administration first made the move in September 2017 but that lower-court judges have kept it from being implemented.
“What this means is that the federal judiciary, without holding that DACA cannot be rescinded, has prevented that from occurring during an entire presidential term,” he wrote. “Our constitutional system is not supposed to work that way.”
Kavanaugh dissented on other grounds. He said that even if the department had not provided adequate reasons initially for ending the program, it has since supplied them, and should not have to begin the legal process again.
Immigration advocates were euphoric over the court’s actions.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D), who led a coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia in bringing the challenge, said in a statement that ending DACA “would have been cruel to the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who call America home, and it would have been bad for our nation’s health.”
He said Congress should “permanently fix our broken immigration system and secure a pathway to citizenship.”
Obama responded on Twitter: “Eight years ago this week, we protected young people who were raised as part of our American family from deportation. Today, I’m happy for them, their families, and all of us. We may look different and come from everywhere, but what makes us American are our shared ideals.”
And he put in a plug for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, his vice president. He said future reform depends on electing Biden “and a Democratic Congress that does its job.” Biden vowed that, if elected, he would immediately work with lawmakers to establish a “clear road map to citizenship” for all undocumented people living in the United States.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), on the other side, said the decision “does not resolve the underlying issue that President Obama’s original executive order exceeded his constitutional authority.” He has filed a suit alleging that in federal court in Texas.
Nearly 800,000 people over the years have taken part in the program. More than 90 percent are employed and 45 percent are in school, according to one government study. Advocates recently told the Supreme Court that nearly 30,000 work in health care and that their work is necessary to fighting the novel coronavirus.
While the program does not provide a direct path to citizenship, it provides a temporary status that shields them from deportation and allows them to work. The status lasts for two years and can be renewed.
Technically, the Trump administration could restart the process and provide the justification the court’s majority said was required. But the process is long, and there is no evidence Congress would want to pass legislation that would end the program.
In fact, it is quite popular with the public. A Pew Research survey conducted this month found that 74 percent of Americans favored granting permanent legal status to immigrants who came illegally to the United States when they were children, while 24 percent opposed.
A 57 percent majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents expressed support, as did 89 percent of Democrats. Other polls have found similar results.
Immigration advocates at the Supreme Court were supported by a coalition of the country’s biggest companies and universities. The decision was praised both by unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Trump at times has said the program served a useful purpose. That includes saying he considers DACA recipients hard-working and sympathetic, many of them thriving in the only country they have ever known.
But he issued a mixed message when the case was argued last fall.
“Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals,” Trump said in a tweet. But then he added: “If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!”
The decision was at least the third major case in which the court considered the president’s power in regards to immigration.
In the census case, experts had said the citizenship question was likely to deter noncitizens from returning the forms and impede an accurate population count.
The court ended its 2018 term by approving the president’s travel ban on visitors from a handful of mostly Muslim countries.
Thursday’s consolidated cases are Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, Trump v. NAACP and McAleenan v. Vidal.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.