A deadlocked U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday thwarted President Barack Obama's plan to defer the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.
The 4-4 decision left in place a lower court decision that rejected an Obama bid to set a new immigration policy by executive order after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration changes.
He called the ruling "heartbreaking" for the immigrants who will not be able to "come out of the shadows to more fully contribute to this country in a meaningful way." But he said there will be no push to deport law-abiding immigrants living in the U.S., even though the ruling leaves their continued presence in the country in legal limbo.
Obama, as he has in the past, condemned Republicans in the Senate for refusing to consider his appointment of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland to fill the ninth seat on the court left vacant by the death earlier this year of Justice Antonin Scalia. The lawmakers say the seat should be filled by the country's next president, after Obama leaves office in January.
Texas and 25 other states sued the Obama administration over his immigration plan, arguing that it was unconstitutional since it conflicted with current federal immigration law. The administration, though, argued that the states had no standing to sue, since immigration law falls under the purview of the federal government.
A lower court previously struck down the Obama action as unlawful and issued an injunction on its implementation until the Supreme Court ruled in the case.
With the court evenly divided on the case, the lower court ruling stands.
"For more than two decades now, our immigration system -- everybody acknowledges -- has been broken," Obama said. "And the fact that the Supreme Court wasn't able to issue a decision today, doesn't just set the system back even further, it takes us further from the country we aspire to be."
Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton denounced the court's ruling as "unacceptable," saying the U.S. "should be doing everything possible" to alleviate the fears of undocumented immigrants in the country that they might be deported. She also rebuked Senate Republicans for refusing to consider Garland's appointment.
Paul Ryan, speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, praised the ruling, saying it shows "the president is not permitted to write laws, only Congress is. This is another major victory in our fight to restore separation of powers."
In another major case, the court upheld an affirmative action program promoting the admission of racial minorities at the University of Texas, ruling 4-3 that the program is constitutional.
Obama said he was pleased by the ruling because it "upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our society and that this country should provide a high-quality education to all our young people, regardless of their background."
The case centered on a white woman, Abigail Fisher, who sued the university claiming the school denied her admission based on her race.
Thanks to an unusual law in Texas, the state grants automatic admission to the top 10 percent of students of each high school to its state university. For about 25 percent of other students, the school bases its acceptance decision on several factors, including the student’s race.
Fisher’s grades were not high enough to put her in the top 10 percent of her class, so she could not take advantage of the rule. She was denied admission in 2008, and when she found out the university admitted minority students with lower grades than hers, she sued the school, claiming race-based discrimination.
The university, in court arguments, claimed its race-based selection policies are necessary to provide a sufficiently diverse campus community, while Fisher’s attorneys said the 10 percent program is enough to ensure that minorities are included in the selection process.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from helping decide the case, since she previously worked on it as U.S. solicitor general, so a four-judge majority decided the case.
Abortion case decision next
The Supreme Court is due to hand down another major decision, on abortion, before its summer recess starts in a week.
That case stems from a Texas law passed in 2013 that requires all abortion providers in the state adhere to the same building standards as outpatient surgical centers. Under the law, doctors at the abortion centers must also have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles — nearly 50 kilometers — of their clinic.
Since the law’s passage, the number of abortion clinics in Texas has plummeted from 42 - 19, and abortion activists say the number could drop even further if the law is fully implemented. Whole Woman’s Health, the plaintiff in the case, claims the requirements are unnecessary and overburdensome. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Health Department of State Health Services, though, argued that the new regulations are necessary to protect the safety of patients seeking abortions.
Since a federal appeals court has already voted to uphold the law, a tie in the Supreme Court would result in the full implementation of the abortion regulations in Texas and nearby states, but not set a national precedent.
White House Correspondent Mary Alice Salinas, Aline Barros and Joshua Fatzick contributed to this report.