WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a split decision in the Obama administration's challenge to Arizona's aggressive immigration law, striking multiple provisions but upholding the "papers please" provision. Civil rights groups argue the latter measure, a centerpiece of S.B. 1070, invites racial profiling.
Monday's decision on "papers please" rested on the more technical issue of whether the law unconstitutionally invaded the federal government's exclusive prerogative to set immigration policy. The justices found that it was not clear whether Arizona was supplanting or supporting federal policy by requiring state law enforcement to demand immigration papers from anyone stopped, detained or arrested in the state who officers reasonably suspect is in the country without authorization. The provision that was upheld -- at least for now -- also commands police to check all arrestees' immigration status with the federal government before they are released.
The court gave the Obama administration a victory by striking three other challenged provisions as stepping on federal prerogatives. Two of them made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to be present and to seek employment in Arizona, while a third authorized police officers to make warrantless arrests of anyone they had probable cause to believe had committed a deportable offense.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "The history of the United States is in part made of the stories, talents and lasting contributions of those who crossed oceans and deserts to come here.
"The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration. With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the Nation's meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law."
Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito each wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
Noting that he would have upheld the state law in its entirety, Scalia wrote, "Arizona has moved to protect its sovereignty -- not in contradiction of federal law, but in complete compliance with it. 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."
"I agree with Justice Scalia that federal immigration law does not preempt any of the challenged provisions of SB 1070," Thomas wrote. "I reach that conclusion, however, for the simple reason that there is no conflict between the 'ordinary meaning' of the relevant federal laws and that of the four provisions of Arizona law at issue here."
Arizona's "papers please" policy remains embattled despite the state's win at the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton heard arguments on whether to certify a class of what could be hundreds of thousands of individuals now trying to bring equal protection, free speech and due process challenges to S.B. 1070. These are separate issues from the question of pre-empting federal policy.
Beyond the Grand Canyon State, lawmakers in Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina will be parsing the Supreme Court's decision to see how their Arizona-style immigration statutes will be affected.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in Arizona v. United States, presumably because she worked on the case during her tenure as President Barack Obama's first solicitor general.