Grassley’s gamble isn’t paying off

Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator is holding firm on his promise to not vet any Supreme Court nominee offered by the White House, but the gambit isn’t producing political returns.

News on Thursday that the U.S. Supreme Court split on a critical immigration case wasn’t welcomed by the Obama administration. The tie effectively continues a lower court’s decision to halt President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program (DAPA), which, in the interest of preserving families, prohibited deportation of the undocumented parents of legal resident children.

It was a legal defeat, although a much lesser one than was expected before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. And, it is quite possible that it wouldn’t have been a defeat at all if Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland, had been confirmed and seated.

A second, less talked about SCOTUS decision upheld the University of Texas’ affirmative action program. The 4-3 decision (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself) will stand as law and is an effective death blow to conservative hopes of ending selection processes that include race alongside other factors.

At least in the short term, the defeat of affirmative action foes will create more policy waves than the immigration decision.

As Obama explained in his response to the immigration ruling, the priorities he sets for the Department of Homeland Security will not change. Undocumented parents of legal children are not now and will not become a deportation priority. Instead, the administration plans to continue its focus on undocumented people with criminal histories.

As Iowans already know, this stance is not perfect. Good people like Iowa City’s Pastor Max Villatoro are often swept up in raids intended to capture “the worst of the worst.” But the priority system is better than having none at all.

Meanwhile, the Obama program remains in limbo while the case is returned to federal court in Texas and argued on its merits.

Which brings us to the 2016 presidential election. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, she’s pledged to continue the existing Obama administration deportation priorities. The status quo will continue and, presumably once a ninth justice is seated, a Clinton administration would seek to place the matter back before SCOTUS. (Only if a new justice is not in place by the end of Obama’s term and his administration requests the appeal be reheard.)

Donald Trump has already pledged to reverse the Obama administration’s immigration directives. He’s promised to deport all undocumented people currently in the country.

Although celebrated as a check on presidential authority by the states that brought the case, the SCOTUS tie offered no clear answers. That’s an important setback for a nation that has witnessed 242 Obama executive orders to date, and 291 under previous President George W. Bush.

It will go down in history as another case that couldn’t be decided by a shortchanged court, courtesy of Senate Republicans and specifically U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Due to the Senate’s unprecedented decision to block any person nominated by Obama, a case lauded by conservatives as the impending demise of fair-share — a labor union practice of collecting fees from those who do not join but benefit from representation — became a win for the unions and a 40-year precedent remained intact.

Four Louisiana abortion clinics closed as part of a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on a new restrictive state law were reopened by the Supreme Court. The move came in advance of a decision in another key Supreme Court abortion case on a similar Texas law.

Another case brought by conservatives hoped for an answer on how a contraceptive mandate within the Affordable Care Act applies to religiously affiliated institution. Instead of an answer, the case was kicked back to the lower court, perhaps avoiding a SCOTUS split, but leaving a patchwork of earlier decisions in place.

In April, Justices chose to answer only part of a voting rights question. States can, according to the Court, draw voting districts based on total population. Justices chose not to decide if districts could be drawn based on only eligible voters — which could diminish the political clout of geographies with undocumented people, generally considered to benefit Republican candidates.

Case after case the political acrobatics necessary to label the final full year of a president’s term as “lame duck” become more absurd.

Where does the obstructionism and partisanship end?

If Clinton wins the White House and Republicans maintain control of the Senate can we look forward to four more years of an eight-member court? And if the tables are turned so that Trump enters the White House and Democrats control the Senate, what then?

Is it now acceptable to ignore all Supreme Court vacancies until the political proclivities of the President and Senate are aligned? That is the new standard Grassley is stubbornly advocating.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 26, 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette