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From Driver's Licenses To Admission Criteria: Inside The Texas SCOTUS Arguments

Matt H. Wade/Wikimedia Commons
James Earle Fraser's statue The Contemplation of Justice, which sits on the west side of the United States Supreme Court building, on the north side of the main entrance stairs.

The two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions affecting Texas had a few legal twists and turns. In this Friday Conversation, Lauren Silverman unpacked the two cases with SMU law professor Lackland Bloom on Think.

The case: United States v. Texas

The decision: 4-4, vote sets no precedent and takes lower court ruling.

What it was about: Texas was one of the states that sued the federal government over President Obama’s 2014 executive order on immigration, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The plan would’ve protected an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to obtain working permits if they have lived in the country for more than five years, passed background checks and paid fines.

“It was the granting of benefits that made it controversial,” Bloom said. “It pretty much entrenches 4.5 million people and makes it more difficult in the future to make any attempt to deport them.”  

The twist: “Texas has a law that if you are lawfully present, you are entitled to a Texas driver’s license, so [the state] sued on the grounds that under DAPA, they’d have to issue driver’s licenses to the people who would qualify,” said Bloom. 

“What people on the outside would think would be the issue - does President Obama have the power to do this – that really has not been the way the case has been litigated, however. That’s what it’s all about but in a sense, that’s not what it’s about.”    

The case: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

The decision: 4-3 (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself), upholding UT Austin’s affirmative action policy as part of its admissions criteria.

What it was about: Abigail Fisher, a white woman, challenged the school’s consideration of race in its admissions decisions, arguing she was denied a spot when she applied in 2008 because of her race.

The twist: “Nationally, it was a very unique case because Texas is the only state with the Top 10 Percent rule with the holistic, race-based program on top of it” said Bloom. “Even if the court had invalidated [the affirmative action policy], it’s likely it would’ve had no impact outside of Texas.”

The Top 10 Percent rule, a sticking point with some educators, grants high school graduates who rank within the top 10 percent of their class automatic admission to any Texas public university. Fisher used that rule in her defense, arguing that the rule was enough to achieve diversity.

Why are some of the biggest cases this session out of Texas?

“It’s a big state, a lot of things happen here,” Bloom said. “The Supreme Court, as a general rule, does not take cases unless there is a ‘circuit split.’ One circuit court goes one way, another circuit goes another way. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals happens to be the circuit that frequently goes the other way, and consequently a lot of those cases come from the 5th Circuit.”

One more Texas case is awaiting a decision: Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges some of the state’s tougher abortion restrictions under HB2.  

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.