In an extraordinary opinion that transforms a routine sentencing matter into a vehicle to strike down a politically controversial policy, a George W. Bush-appointed judge in Pennsylvania declared President Obama’s recently announced immigration policy unconstitutional on Tuesday. Because the policy “may” apply to a defendant who was awaiting sentencing of a criminal immigration violation, Judge Arthur Schwab decides that he must determine “whether the Executive Action is constitutional.” He concludes that it is not.
Schwab spends just five pages discussing his rationale for this conclusion, an unusually short amount of legal analysis for a complex question regarding the scope of the executive branch’s power to set enforcement priorities. Notably, Schwab also spends nearly three pages discussing quotes from President Obama which, the judge claims, indicate that Obama once thought his present actions are illegal — even though Schwab eventually admits that these quotes are “not dispositive of the constitutionality of his Executive Action on immigration.”
Half of Schwab’s analysis of the Executive Action’s constitutionality is devoted to a strawman. Noting that Obama cited Congress’s failure to act on immigration in his speech announcing the new policy, Schwab devotes half of his analysis of the policy’s constitutionality to explaining that “Inaction by Congress Does Not Make Unconstitutional Executive Action Constitutional.” He’s right on this point, just as Schwab would be correct if he argued that President Obama’s authority to create this new policy does not come from a magic hat that Obama keeps in the Oval Office. But it’s somewhat curious that the judge feels the need to present Obama’s political rhetoric as if it were a constitutional argument and then tear that non-argument down.
The remainder of Schwab’s brief constitutional analysis concludes that the new policy “Goes Beyond Prosecutorial Discretion — It is Legislation.” Notably, however, Schwab cites no judicial precedents of any kind to support this conclusion.
One case that Schwab does not cite is Arizona v. United States, where the Supreme Court said that the executive branch has “broad discretion” in matters of deportation and removal. As Arizona explains, a “principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials.” Executive branch officials, moreover, “must decide whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all.”
Notably, Arizona also indicates that this broad discretion flows from federal immigration law — i.e. laws that were enacted by Congress. This matters because Schwab’s opinion concludes that Obama’s “unilateral” policy “violates the separation of powers provided for in the United States Constitution as well as the Take Care Clause.” In essence, Schwab concludes that the president lacks the authority to act in the absence of authorization by Congress. Schwab does not even discuss the possibility that Obama’s actions may actually be authorized by Congress. Thus, even if Schwab’s reading of the Constitution is correct — itself a questionable proposition — the judge does not even discuss another major source of law that can justify the president’s actions.
Another problem Schwab does not address in his constitutional analysis is how, exactly, the executive branch is supposed to deport the many millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States if it is not allowed to set enforcement priorities among them. As the Justice Department explained in a memo discussing the legality of Obama’s policy, “there are approximately 11.3 million undocumented aliens in the country,” but the executive only “has the resources to remove fewer than 400,000 such aliens each year.”
The fact that Congress only provided sufficient resources to the Obama administration to remove a small fraction of the undocumented immigrants within the United States is itself a legislative judgment that most of these immigrants should not be removed. As the Supreme Court explained in Heckler v. Chaney, because federal agencies typically lack the resources to “act against each technical violation of the statute it is charged with enforcing,” they necessarily must set enforcement priorities. Moreover, these priorities generally should not be second-guessed by judges because “[t]he agency is far better equipped than the courts to deal with the many variables involved in the proper ordering of its priorities.”
So Schwab’s legal analysis is thin. He spends nearly as much time making what appear to be political attacks on the president as he does evaluating actual legal matters. And what little legal analysis he does provide fails to cite key Supreme Court decisions that seem to contradict his conclusion. Judge Schwab traveled far along a very thin branch to reach this decision, and he anchored his decision with little grounding in legal authorities.
Moreover, it’s not clear what effect, if any effect at all, this decision will actually have. The judge does not issue an injunction halting the new immigration policy. Nor does he even state with certainty that the actual defendant in the case before his court will benefit from an order declaring the immigration policy unconstitutional.
Yet, despite these weaknesses in his opinion, immigrant families would be wrong to write off the threat his decision could present. There was a time when the constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act were widely dismissed by legal experts — Ronald Reagan’s former solicitor general said he would “eat a hat which I bought in Australia last month made of kangaroo skin” if the Supreme Court struck the law down — yet these challenges rapidly gained momentum after a few Republican judges reached out to strike the law down. The same can be said about the legal theory in King v. Burwell, a lawsuit currently before the Supreme Court that seeks to gut much of Obamacare.
It remains to be seen whether Schwab’s opinion — thin though its reasoning may be — will also grant legitimacy to the case against the president’s immigration policy.