By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday dealt President Barack Obama a harsh defeat, splitting 4-4 over his plan to spare millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation and give them work permits, leaving intact a lower-court ruling blocking the plan.
The court, with four conservative justices and four liberals, appeared divided along ideological lines during oral arguments on April 18 in a case brought by 26 states led by Texas that sued to block Obama's 2014 executive action on immigration that bypassed Congress.
The 4-4 ruling was possible because there are only eight justices following February's death of conservative Antonin Scalia.
Obama's plan was tailored to let roughly 4 million people - those who have lived illegally in the United States at least since 2010, have no criminal record and have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents - get into a program that shields them from deportation and supplies work permits.
The court did not issue a ruling on the merits of the main legal question. Therefore, its action set no legal precedent to bind future presidents. The decision indicates that any major immigration policy change that would address the long-term situation of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally would have to be enacted by Congress.
This was not the first time that the Supreme Court determined the fate of an important Obama initiative. The justices in 2012 and 2015 issued high-profile rulings preserving his signature healthcare law that Republicans have long fought.