Supreme Court Arizona Immigration Ruling: Justices Clear Key Part

Josh Gerstein, Politico, June 25, 2012

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to a central provision of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law, clearing the path for similar legislation to take effect in other states and potentially angering Latinos in a way that could give President Barack Obama an added boost from Hispanic voters in November.

That provision, requiring police to conduct immigration checks on individuals they arrest or merely stop for questioning whom they suspect are in the U.S. illegally, does not appear to violate the Constitution by intruding on the federal government’s powers to control immigration, the court said.

All eight justices who ruled on the case voted to allow the mandatory immigration-check requirement to go into effect. They split on three other disputed provisions of the law, with a majority of the justices ruling that each of those parts of the law could not be enforced because they intruded improperly into a policy sphere reserved to the federal government. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the ruling.

The justices said further legal challenges to the mandatory immigration check provision can go forward after that part of the law takes effect.

The ruling Monday is far from a definitive verdict on the Arizona law known as SB 1070, since the case that the court decided did not address the most contentious charge about the legislation: that it will lead to racial profiling of Latinos.

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Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.), who championed the law and rode a wave of political popularity off of its passage, hailed the court’s ruling allowing the enforcement of what she called “the heart” of the immigration crackdown measure.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is a victory for the rule of law,” Brewer said in a statement. “After more than two years of legal challenges, the heart of SB 1070 can now be implemented in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.”

Chief Justice Roberts joined with Kennedy and the court’s liberals to strike, 5-3, two other provisions of the Arizona law: a section making it a crime to apply for or hold a job in Arizona without legal work authority and another section allowing a police officer to arrest someone if the officer believes that he has committed a crime that could cause him to be deported, no matter where the crime took place.

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In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court had run roughshod over Arizona’s right to enforce order within its own borders.

“Arizona has moved to protect its sovereignty—not in contradiction of federal law, but in complete compliance with it,” Scalia wrote. “The laws under challenge here do not extend or revise federal immigration restrictions, but merely enforce those restrictions more effectively. If securing its territory in this fashion is not within the power of Arizona, we should cease referring to it as a sovereign State.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes just over a week after Obama announced a major change in immigration policy, pledging not to deport most young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. {snip}

Scalia directly invoked Obama’s recent move, saying Arizona should not have to step back to allow the president leeway to not enforce immigration law.

“The president said at a news conference that the new program is ‘the right thing to do’ in light of Congress’s failure to pass” immigration reform legislation, Scalia said in a portion of his dissent he summarized from the bench. “Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so. But to say, as the Court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing applications of the Immigration Act that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind.”

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However, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney issued a statement Monday faulting Obama for failing to push for a federal immigration reform bill.

“Today’s decision underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy. President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration. This represents yet another broken promise by this President,” Romney said, noting that Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign to put forward an immigration initiative during his first year in office.

Romney has refused to take a clear position on the controversial Arizona law or its provisions. However, he opposed the federal effort to block Arizona’s law—a position he articulated again Monday.

“I believe that each state has the duty—and the right—to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities,” Romney said.

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The part of Monday’s ruling that prevented Arizona from making it a crime for foreigners to be in the state without valid immigration papers appears to preclude local police from stopping people solely because they are suspected of being in the country illegally. However, Kennedy said explicitly that the court was leaving for another day whether concerns about immigration status could justify prolonging the detention of individuals stopped for other reasons.

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