ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court once again stepped boldly into the boiling cauldron of political controversy. The court said it would rule by summer on the legality of President Obama's executive action on immigration. His program aims to grant temporary legal status to as many as four-and-a-half million people who entered the U.S. illegally. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Fourteen months ago, Obama, frustrated by the Congress's inability to act on immigration reform, issued an order granting temporary legal status and work permits to illegal adult immigrants who have children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents. The order granted legal status for three years on a case-by-case basis.
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BARACK OBAMA: If you've been in America for more than five years, if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents, if you register, pass a criminal background check and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That's what this deal is.
TOTENBERG: Republicans blasted the president's action as lawless, and a coalition of 26 states, led by Texas, challenged the executive order in court, contending that the president had exceeded his authority. A year ago, a federal judge blocked implementation of the program, and a federal appeals court panel, by a two-to-one vote, subsequently upheld the injunction on broader grounds. The Obama administration then asked the Supreme Court to review the case. And today, the justices said they would hear arguments in April with a decision expected by late June.
If the court had refused to hear the case, the appeals court ruling would have stood, and the president's program would have been dead in the water. But there's no assurance of how the court will rule. Indeed, the justices broadened the scope of the case, asking the two sides to address an additional and fundamental question - whether the president's order violates the Constitution's commanded that the president, quote, "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow sees that as a good omen.
JAY SEKULOW: I think the adding of that question, I think, helps our side, and I think it helps those of us that are concerned that the president overreached here.
TOTENBERG: Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, is filing a friend of the court brief opposing the president's action on behalf of 88 congressman and 25 senators, including the two Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. Dozens of other groups on both sides are expected to weigh in. Here's Marielena Incopia of the National Immigration Law Center.
MARIELENA INCOPIA: It is important to remember that the president's immigration actions are not just legal but that they have been used by every administration, both Republican and Democrat, since President Eisenhower.
TOTENBERG: Duquesne Law School dean Kenneth Gormley, author of "A New History On Presidential Power," sees the questions in this case as a new wrinkle on an old debate.
KENNETH GORMLEY: There have been battles over these issues dating back to George Washington. This one is, I think, particularly interesting because it immigration, in general - immigration and naturalization - has generally been left to the federal government under the Constitution. There's a need for it, a uniform sort of system. And so I think the states are in a particularly weak position in cases like this. I think the real battle lines will be between President Obama and Congress in deciding whether he has exceeded his power.
TOTENBERG: The addition of the U.S. versus Texas case to this term's docket today means that just as the political parties are choosing their nominees this summer, the justices of the Supreme Court will be deciding cases involving race and affirmative action, abortion, birth control and now immigration. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.