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The Supreme Court deadlocked on Thursday over a challenge to President Barack Obama’s immigration plan that would have prevented deportation for millions of immigrants, pushing the issue to the forefront of the 2016 election.

The 4-4 tie leaves in place lower appeals court rulings against enforcing the plan. The February death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has left the court with just 8 justices. Although the high court’s stalemate established no new precedent, it effectively put an end to Mr. Obama’s effort to extend his executive authority over immigration to the outer limit.

The one-sentence ruling was the latest defeat for Mr. Obama in the courts, which recently have thwarted some of his administration’s top policy goals.

A federal judge in Wyoming on Tuesday blocked a rule setting stricter standards for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. And in February, the Supreme Court suspended the Obama administration’s cornerstone climate-change regulation limiting carbon emissions from power plants while litigation proceeds.

Once again, the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February and left the court with eight members, was a likely factor in the outcome. Had he lived to vote on the case, he almost certainly would have sided with Texas and created a national precedent limiting executive power over immigration policy.

His death also contributed to the outcome of another case decided on Thursday, when the court voted 4-3 to uphold affirmative action in university admissions. Justice Scalia’s comments at the December oral argument suggested he would vote against racial preferences, which would have led to a 4-4 split that yielded no precedent. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.

The outcome in the immigration case doesn’t require the administration to begin deportations of the affected immigrants—all of whom had significant ties to the U.S., such as children who are U.S. citizens or lawful residents. But it does halt the government’s plan to normalize their presence by granting them authorization to work.

Speaking from the White House, Mr. Obama expressed frustration at the nation’s continuing paralysis on immigration policy: “I believe that this country deserves an immigration policy that reflects the goodness of the American people.”

The president also complained about the continuation of the open seat at the Supreme Court. Citing the increasingly frequent tie votes, he said that Republicans were extending the court’s paralysis by refusing to consider his nominee for the open seat, U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

“Republicans in Congress currently are willfully preventing the Supreme Court from being fully staffed and functioning as our founders intended,” Mr. Obama said.

Republicans have said the next president should decide who should fill the Supreme Court opening.

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