WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday allowed the Trump administration to move forward with plans to deny green cards to immigrants who are thought to be likely to become “public charges” by making even occasional and minor use of public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers.
As in a similar case last month, the vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority. As before, the court’s brief order included no reasons for lifting a preliminary injunction that had blocked the new program.
The earlier case, from a judge in New York, concerned a nationwide injunction. Friday’s order lifted a much more limited injunction, one that applied only in Illinois.
The new order drew a scathing dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said the Trump administration had become too quick to run to the Supreme Court after interim losses in the lower courts.
“Claiming one emergency after another, the government has recently sought stays in an unprecedented number of cases, demanding immediate attention and consuming limited court resources in each,” she wrote. “And with each successive application, of course, its cries of urgency ring increasingly hollow.”
The court’s earlier order, she said, at least had the virtue of blocking a nationwide injunction, a form of relief that has been criticized by judges and scholars.
Indeed, two members of the court — Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas — issued a concurrence in last month’s case indicating that the central problem was the geographic scope of the injunction.
“It has become increasingly apparent that this court must, at some point, confront these important objections to this increasingly widespread practice,” Justice Gorsuch wrote. “As the brief and furious history of the regulation before us illustrates, the routine issuance of universal injunctions is patently unworkable, sowing chaos for litigants, the government, courts, and all those affected by these conflicting decisions.”
“I concur in the court’s decision to issue a stay,” Justice Gorsuch continued. “But I hope, too, that we might at an appropriate juncture take up some of the underlying equitable and constitutional questions raised by the rise of nationwide injunctions.”
On Friday, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the administration’s “own definition of irreparable harm has shifted” after securing that first victory.
“Having first sought a stay in the New York cases based, in large part, on the purported harm created by a nationwide injunction, it now disclaims that rationale and insists that the harm is its temporary inability to enforce its goals in one state,” she wrote.
She added that the court had to shoulder its share of the blame.
“It is hard to say,” she wrote, “what is more troubling: that the government would seek this extraordinary relief seemingly as a matter of course, or that the court would grant it.”
The administration, she wrote, has been treated far better by the justices than death row inmates seeking last-minute stays of executions.
“I fear,” she wrote, “that this disparity in treatment erodes the fair and balanced decision-making process that this court must strive to protect.”
The administration announced in August that it would revise the so-called public charge rule, which allows officials to deny immigrants permanent legal status, also known as a green card, if they are likely to need public assistance. In the past, only substantial and sustained monetary help or long-term institutionalization counted, and less than 1 percent of applicants were disqualified on public charge grounds.
The administration’s revised rule broadened the criteria to include “noncash benefits providing for basic needs such as housing or food” used in any 12 months in a 36-month period. Use of two kinds of benefits in a single month counts as two months, and so on.
The new rule was challenged in courts around the country, and five trial judges entered injunctions blocking it. Appellate courts stayed some but not all of the injunctions while appeals moved forward, and the appeals themselves have been placed on fast tracks.