Supreme Court to review challenge to Arizona illegal immigration law

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear a challenge to Arizona's controversial immigration law, setting up another high-profile decision for the court's coming term.

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Arizona asked the court to allow the state to enforce legislation that has been blocked after being challenged by the Obama administration, including provisions that would enable police officers to question a person's immigration status if they suspect the person is in the country illegally. The law would also make it a crime to not carry proof of legal immigration status, make it against state law for an illegal immigrant to seek employment, and allow police to detain those suspected of being illegal immigrants without a warrant.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked each of those provisions in April.

“I would like to commend the U.S. Supreme Court for its decision to review and hear arguments pertaining to the federal court injunction," said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in a statement Monday. "I am confident the High Court will uphold Arizona’s constitutional authority and obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens."

The undertaking by the court will be the second high-profile case expected to be decided in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign. Arguments are expected in April, with a decision in early summer.

The court is also primed to consider the constitutional challenge to the individual mandate in President Obama's healthcare reform law.

Justice Elena Kagan said Monday that she would recuse herself from the challenge to Arizona's controversial immigration law, presumably because she served as Obama's solicitor general when the federal government filed the original lawsuit against the state.

Her recusal opens up the possibility for a rare 4-4 split on the court; since a lower court blocked provisions of the law, the tie would uphold that ruling and function as a win for the Obama administration. But the court would not be able to settle the larger issue of whether the Arizona statute is constitutional in the event of tie.

The Justice Department has contended that regulating immigration is a federal responsibility, and has fought the Arizona law and similar variations in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.

“Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement earlier this year. “But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety. Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.”

Arizona has argued that the federal government hasn't done enough to prevent illegal immigration, however, and that border states are experiencing higher crime and economic consequences.

“This case is not just about Arizona. It’s about every state grappling with the costs of illegal immigration," Brewer said. "And it’s about the fundamental principle of federalism, under which these states have a right to defend their people. Beyond the obvious safety issues, the fiscal burdens imposed upon Arizona by illegal immigration are daunting. Our state spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year incarcerating criminal aliens and providing education and healthcare to individuals who entered and reside in this country in violation of our laws."

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But the Justice Department argues that Arizona's laws are "expressly designed to rival or supplant that of the federal government."

"Arizona’s immigration policy exceeds a state’s role with respect to aliens, interferes with the federal government’s balanced administration of the immigration laws, and critically undermines U.S. foreign policy objectives," the Justice Department said in a statement.

Still, Brewer argues that the state has been "more than patient" in waiting for the federal government.

"Decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation, and states deserve clarity from the Court in terms of what role they have in fighting illegal immigration," Brewer said. "I’m pleased this nationally important issue will be resolved by the highest court in the land.”