First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Takes Prominent Role

Joan Biskupic, Yahoo! News, April 25, 2012

The Supreme Court was deep into arguments over Arizona’s new immigration law on Wednesday when the high court’s first Hispanic justice focused on how difficult it could be for police officers to determine whether someone they stop is in the United States legally.

“What information does your (federal) system have?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as she methodically extracted a core element of the Obama administration’s case against the state of Arizona.

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Puerto Ricans have for nearly a century been U.S. citizens, so Sotomayor’s family did not face the dilemmas of many other Hispanics who moved to the United States. Yet Sotomayor, who grew up in a housing project and went to Princeton and Yale on scholarships, has referred to the sting of discrimination and feeling “different” among people from elite backgrounds.

Verrilli told her that while many federal databases exist, including one listing U.S. passport holders, there is no citizenship database. “So you have lots of circumstances in which people who are citizens are going to come up (with) no match,” he added.

On Wednesday, as Sotomayor, who joined the court in 2009, heard her first major immigration case, she vigorously questioned both sides. She showed a particular concern for the plight of people who might be detained by police based on their race or ethnicity.

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For his part, Clement brushed off concerns about problems in federal databases that might prevent local officials from quickly knowing the immigration status of someone stopped.

“If there is some sloppiness in the way the federal government keeps its records so that there’s lots of people that really should be registered but aren’t, I can’t imagine that sloppiness has a preemptive effect” that would prevent a state from adopting its own laws to stop illegal immigration.

Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s first appointee to the Supreme Court, was not without criticism for parts of his administration’s position and at one point observed that Verrilli’s arguments were “not selling very well.”

To be sure, the overall tone of Wednesday’s hearing, dominated by conservative justices who hold a majority on the court, suggested the court would ultimately rule that states have a role in regulating illegal immigrants and that a significant part of the Arizona law should be upheld.

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