By Jordy Yager - 04/26/12 12:52 AM EDT
The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s objections to a controversial immigration law in Arizona.
In a case steeped in election-year politics, conservative and liberal justices alike expressed doubts about the government’s argument that the Arizona law was an unconstitutional intrusion on the federal government’s power to enforce immigration law.
The Obama administration sued Arizona over the controversial measure its Legislature passed in 2010. The law set off a political firestorm and has since been copied by other states.
President Obama has loudly criticized it, and Democrats see the law as a wedge issue with increasingly important Hispanic voters. Polls suggest Obama enjoys a substantial lead with Hispanics over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
Arizona’s law would, among other things, require local law enforcement officials to verify a person’s legal status when they’re stopped on suspicion of committing a separate offense.
The administration argues this impinges on the power of the federal government, but several justices voiced doubts about that argument, including Sotomayor, whom Obama nominated to the court in 2009.
Chief Justice John Roberts said he didn’t see a problem with the law, which requires state officials to notify federal authorities of the immigration status of the person stopped under the law.
Roberts argued that the power to decide what to do with that person still lay within the hands of the federal government. He also said the state, in that instance, would be attempting to help the federal government.
Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who saw her national profile soar with the immigration fight, attended the arguments and told reporters afterward that she was “very, very encouraged” with what she heard.
“I feel very confident, as I walked out of there, that we will get a favorable ruling in late June,” said Brewer.
Others attending the arguments included Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a strong proponent of the measure, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Policy and Enforcement subcommittee.
Several hundred protesters and activists on both sides of the issue demonstrated outside the court. One supporter of the law carried a sign that read, “Thank you Arizona.” Not far away, another protester carried a sign that read, “Do I look illegal to you?”
A third activist went after Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has threatened to introduce legislation that would circumvent the Supreme Court if it upholds the statute. The activist’s sign read: “Sen. Chuck Schumer: No amnesty for Irish illegals.”
Schumer’s legislation highlights the view among many Democrats that a fight with the Supreme Court over the law could help their party in the election. Republicans have disputed that understanding, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) this week arguing that Democrats are wrong to think U.S. Hispanics care only about immigration.
The case centers around four provisions in the Arizona law that have been blocked from going into effect by two lower courts.
Besides requiring law enforcement officers to verify the legal status of everyone they stop whom they suspect might be in the country illegally, the law would give officials the right to arrest foreign citizens they suspect might have committed a deportable offense; make it a state crime for immigrants not to register to be in the country legally; and make it a crime in Arizona for illegal immigrants to work and for employers to hire illegal immigrants.
Paul Clement, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration, who is arguing the case for Arizona, said the state is merely assisting the federal government on immigration by helping to find illegal immigrants and suggest them for deportation.
Arizona has a 370-mile border with Mexico, bears a large burden from illegal immigration and is justified in protecting its citizens, Clement said.
Verrilli countered that immigration enforcement is a foreign-policy issue because of the sheer number of Mexican nationals in the country who could be jailed as illegal immigrants. He suggested that Americans might be treated more harshly if they violated another country’s immigration policies.
“It’s the reason why this power needs to be vested exclusively in the federal government,” said Verrilli. “What they are going to do is engage, effectively, in mass incarceration … It is the problem of reciprocal treatment of the United States citizens in other countries.”
A final decision will not be reached until June, when the campaign season will be in its final throws.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case because of her involvement in immigration matters as solicitor general.
— Updated at 8:52 p.m.