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Supreme Court Decisions Uphold Affirmative Action, Shelve Immigration Program


In the city of Baltimore, a judge has found another officer in the case of Freddie Gray not guilty, and we'll have the latest on that coming up later this hour. Let's begin with two major decisions from the United States Supreme Court today, one upholding affirmative action in college admissions, and the other shelving President Obama's deferred action program to protect millions of immigrants now in the country illegally. Joining us from the Supreme Court building to describe what the court's done this morning, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, good morning.


GREENE: Let's just start with the immigration case if we can, where the court was split 4 to 4 shorthanded of course because the death of Antonin Scalia. What was the decision here, and what does it mean?

TOTENBERG: There is no decision...


TOTENBERG: ...That's the point. When the court is tied 4 to 4, the effect is that the lower court decision stands, for now. But it has no value in precedent. The court - the Supreme Court writes no language. What the lower court said has no precedential value. But in this case, it has a practical value because this was a very interesting thing that the lower court took the unusual step of imposing a nationwide - not just for its district, but for a nationwide injunction barring President Obama's immigration program that applied to some illegal immigrants who would be allowed to apply for work permits and stay here for two to three years.

GREENE: Largely the parents of people who are in the country and had fallen under another program to stay in the country illegally...

TOTENBERG: Right, so the...


TOTENBERG: So the effect of that program - the effect of no decision is that that program is, in this case, is dead.


TOTENBERG: And it's dead until we have a new president. A new president can have a new program of some sort, whether it's Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And then the court, it can work its way back up to the Supreme Court, and it would decide whether that program, whether it's a ban on all Muslims or it's another program to let more people in whether that program is constitutional...

GREENE: So a major legal defeat here for President Obama. Let's just shift briefly, if we can, to the other big decision today, affirmative action. The court divided along usual lines here, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the swing vote in writing an opinion. What was the reasoning, and what does this mean for affirmative action?

TOTENBERG: Well, at least for now, it lives. And this is a case for Texas that has been around for years. It's - this is its second trip to the Supreme Court. And Justice Kennedy, writing for the four justices in the majority - because this was for a 4 to 3 case. Justice Kagan was recused because she had something to do with this case when she was solicitor general.

GREENE: Right.

TOTENBERG: So she didn't participate. So this was 4 to 3 in...

GREENE: No Kagan, no Scalias, so seven justices...

TOTENBERG: No Kagan, no Scalias. So this was 4 to 3, and what Kennedy said was a university is in large part defined by those intangible qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness. Considerable deference is owed to the university in defining those intangible characteristics like student body diversity. And still...

GREENE: Nina, I'm so sorry but we'll have to...

TOTENBERG: ...It remains an enduring challenge to have equal protection of everybody, and it upheld this plan.

GREENE: All right, upholding an important affirmative action case, we'll have much more on that as we go forward this morning. Nina, thanks a lot.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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