The Supreme Court's decision to review the legality of President Obama's executive action allowing millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the country could put a damper on some of the White House's plans for a host of new executive actions this year.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said last week that Obama plans an "audacious" set of executive actions for the remainder of his time in office. But he was quick to note that the president's policymaking would be carefully designed to "make sure the steps we have taken are ones we can lock down and not be subjected to undoing" through Congress or the courts.
That condition has some legal scholars saying Obama is likely to rein it in for a bit, at least while the court considers the immigration actions. A decision on that is expected in June.
"Once the president was sued on the immigration actions, the administration has been skittish about executive actions in other areas," Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell University and the co-author of a 21-volume immigration law treatise, told the Washington Examiner.
Yale-Loehr said the gun-control initiatives Obama issued in early January were already a sign of the White House treading more cautiously. He said that announcement was "pretty finely tuned to minimize the possibility of a legal challenge, so they are already being very careful."
The courts traditionally have given presidents more latitude when it comes to wading into immigration policy and providing legal amnesty to illegal migrants, because the issue touches on sovereignty and foreign relations. But it's difficult to know what the high court will do in this case because it hinges on the meaning and purpose of a constitutional language known as the Take Care Clause, which says it's the president's duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
The lawsuit, which was filed by Texas and 25 other largely Republican-led states, seeks to block Obama's Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, known as DAPA. The law provides temporary legal relief to immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens or are permanent residents.
The states argue that DAPA violates the Take Care Clause, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act, which guides the process in which executive agencies go about creating regulations.
It's the first time the Supreme Court has taken on the legal limits of the Take Care Clause, and the outcome could limit presidents' ability to make immigration policy and, more broadly, redefine the balance of power between Congress and the president.
Over the course of his presidency, Obama has increasingly pushed the boundaries of his powers when it comes to exercising his executive authority, and some critics say Obama will resist shifting course as much as he can.
"There is nothing in President Obama's previous experience with the Supreme Court that leads me to believe that he would be anything but emboldened to continue his evisceration" of Congress' authority to make laws, said Americans for Limited Government president Richard Manning.
But others see evidence that Obama's push is being tempered by his staff. Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in Constitutional Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, says Obama's effort on guns this month are an example of that reality. Those actions mostly aimed at improving existing regulations, boosting budgets and clarifying rules already enforced by federal agencies.
"If his lawyers told him there would be anything more he could do on guns, he would have," Shapiro said. "It wasn't that big of a deal but he had a big press conference trying to make it seem as if it were a big deal."
With only 11 months left in office, Shapiro expects the same when it comes to other pet issues, such as equal pay for women, campaign-finance reform and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, three areas the president pledged to tackle in his State of the Union speech.
When it comes to equal pay, the president will likely try to follow up on a pair of executive orders he previously issued. Those include one that requires federal contractors to report employee wages based on race and sex, and another that requires federal contractors to demonstrate their compliance with civil rights laws when procuring government contracts.
Obama has pledged to try to cut off the flood of money in the political system after the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. But any action Obama could take on campaign-finance reform also would be limited just to federal contractors.
When it comes to closing Guantanamo Bay, the president acting alone would be far more audacious. Republicans have passed a law specifically barring him from transferring Guantanamo detainees into the country, but supporters argue that Article II of the Constitution gives presidents the legal right not only to decide where to order troop deployments but also where to place prisoners.
Obama's formal plan to close Guantanamo Bay is expected to hit Congress soon. If it includes unilateral presidential action to move the detainees to a prison in the mainland U.S., the courts will likely be busy determining that piece of Obama's legacy for months to come.