WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday seemed sharply dividedduring an extended argument over a challenge to President Obama’s plan that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to work in the country legally.
A 4-4 deadlock seemed a real possibility, one that would leave in place an appeals court ruling that blocks the plan and deny Mr. Obama the chance to revive it while he remains in office. A tie vote would set no Supreme Court precedent and therefore would allow a renewed challenge to the plan once the court is back at full strength.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s questions were deeply skeptical of the administration’s position. They appeared to signal that he would not join the court’s four more liberal members in dismissing the case on the ground that the challengers had not suffered injuries giving them standing to sue. A ruling based on standing would be a victory for the administration.
The case, brought by Texas and 25 other states, could still produce a significant ruling on presidential power and immigration policy in the midst of an election campaign in which both issues have been prominent.
A loss for Mr. Obama would vindicate Republican accusations that he has acted lawlessly in exceeding the limits of presidential power and has not done enough to secure the nation’s borders. A victory for him would uphold one of the central legacies of his presidency and affect the lives of countless immigrants.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the government’s top appellate lawyer, opened the arguments with a vigorous defense of Mr. Obama’s authority to set priorities for immigration enforcement.
He was quickly challenged by Chief Justice Roberts. “Could the president grant deferred removal to every unlawfully present alien in the United States right now?” the chief justice asked skeptically. Mr. Verrilli said there were statutory constraints that would prevent the president from doing so.
Mr. Verrilli also argued that Texas had not suffered the sort of direct and concrete injury that gave it standing to sue.
The chief justice said the administration had given Texas an impossible choice, “a real catch-22.”
Texas says it has standing to sue because it would be costly for the state to give driver’s licenses to immigrants affected by the federal policy. Mr. Verrilli said the state could simply change its law to deny driver’s licenses to the immigrants.
“You would sue them instantly,” Chief Justice Roberts responded, meaning that the federal government would file a lawsuit challenging Texas’ unequal treatment of immigrants affected by the program. Mr. Verrilli said that was probably so but that such a suit might not succeed.
The answer did not seem to satisfy Chief Justice Roberts, who suggested that the choice between incurring a budget shortfall and facing a lawsuit from the federal government was enough to establish standing.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, on the other hand, twice suggested that Texas could have filed a different kind of lawsuit, one in which its standing would not be in question.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that “nearly 11 million unauthorized aliens are here in the shadows.”
“They’re here whether we want them or not,” she said.
But Justice Kennedy questioned whether the president can defer deportations for millions of people without specific congressional authorization.
“It’s as if the president is defining the policy and the Congress is executing it,” Justice Kennedy said. “That’s just upside down.”