WASHINGTON -- It looks like President Barack Obama may get a chance to defend his immigration policies in court before he leaves office.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a request from the federal government that essentially secures timely consideration of Obama's executive actions on immigration -- raising the likelihood that the justices will hear the case in the spring and decide it by the end of June, when their current term ends.
Since the administration filed its appeal of the case to the Supreme Court in late November, Texas and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli had been embroiled in a procedural tussle over timing. Texas, the lead plaintiff in 26 states' suit against the executive actions Obama announced last year, had been seeking to delay consideration of the appeal, while Verrilli argued that a delay was unwarranted.
Supreme Court clerk Scott Harris said Tuesday in a notice to lawyers for the parties that Texas would have until Dec. 29 to respond to the administration's appeal. This effectively puts the dispute on track to be considered at the justices' Jan. 15, 2016, conference.
If the court agrees to hear the case following the conference, its rules would allow briefing to take place in February and March and oral arguments in April. A ruling would likely come down in June -- several months before the presidential election.
Last week, Texas had requested a 30-day extension to respond to the appeal, contending that it had "numerous pressing deadlines in other cases" -- including a hearing in a major voting rights case set for December. In a letter to the court clerk filed the next day, Verrilli opposed Texas' request and urged the Supreme Court to proceed in its "ordinary course."
"A filing on the proposed date would preclude the Court, in the absence of unusual expedition, from deciding to hear the case this Term," Verrilli wrote.
The back-and-forth was largely administrative -- even academic. Parties before the Supreme Court rarely fight over scheduling issues this early in the life of an appeal. More often than not, the court simply grants these mundane extension requests as a matter of course.
But because the political implications of the case are significant, Texas' request was largely viewed as an attempt to game the clock -- and possibly prevent the Supreme Court from hearing the case before the end of the current administration.
The Supreme Court will be hearing its share of controversial cases ahead of the 2016 presidential election -- on abortion, affirmative action, public-sector unions, voting rights and religious challenges to contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But none of these cases are likely to impact Obama's legacy as much as the fate of his deportation relief programs, which have been in limbo for more than a year since he first announced them.
With Tuesday's move, the justices seem poised to end the uncertainty sooner rather than later.
On Nov. 20, 2014, the president unveiled the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, aimed at protecting undocumented immigrant parents from the threat of deportation and providing them with temporary work authorization.
In the same order, Obama expanded the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which bestows similar benefits on undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children.
Shortly before DAPA and DACA were rolled out, Texas and 25 other states sued the Obama administration and sought to block both programs, claiming they exceeded the president's constitutional authority.
A federal judge halted the programs in February, spurring a lengthy appeals battle and leaving more than 4 million potential beneficiaries in the lurch. Earlier this month, an appeals court kept both DAPA and DACA on hold.
From the beginning, the Obama administration has insisted that the immigration plan is well within its constitutional prerogatives and in line with deportation deferrals other presidents have granted.
As is often the case, the Supreme Court will have the last word.