(Updates with reaction starting in 15th paragraph.)
Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court said it will consider reviving the trailblazing Arizona law that would use local police and prosecutors to crack down on illegal immigration.
Already set to rule on President Barack Obama’s health-care law by the middle of next year, the justices today added another high-profile case that has implications for similar laws around the country and for the 2012 elections.
The court will hear Arizona’s appeal of a ruling that said the state was interfering with the federal government’s authority over immigration policy. Arizona, which says its 370- mile border with Mexico is the crossing point for half the nation’s illegal immigrants, contends it has the right to tackle a problem that the national government has failed to address.
The lower court ruling “leaves Arizona and its people to suffer from a serious problem without any realistic legal tools for addressing it,” Arizona and its Republican governor, Jan Brewer, argued in their appeal. They are represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement.
As with health care, the case is a test of federalism, pitting the federal government against a collection of states. Arizona has support at the high court from 11 other states, including Alabama, which is defending its own illegal- immigration crackdown against an Obama administration lawsuit.
Justice Elena Kagan, who formerly served as Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer, didn’t take part in the court’s decision to hear the case.
The administration, which urged the justices to reject the Arizona appeal without a hearing, said the law conflicts with Supreme Court decisions establishing that the federal government is the ultimate authority on immigration. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said that while states can “cooperate” in enforcing federal policy, they can’t challenge it.
The Arizona provisions “do not represent an effort to cooperate with the federal government in enforcing federal immigration law,” argued Verrilli, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer. “Instead, they are designed to establish Arizona’s own immigration policy, ‘attrition through enforcement,’ to supplant what the governor called in her signing statement the federal government’s ‘misguided policy.’”
Justice Department Challenge
The Justice Department sued to challenge the Arizona measure, and a San Francisco-based federal appeals court blocked it from taking effect in April.
Arizona’s law, known as S.B. 1070, requires police officers to check immigration status when they arrest or stop someone and have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally.
The measure also requires registered immigrants to carry documentation with them at all times, or be subject to 30 days imprisonment. In addition, the Arizona law makes it a state crime to violate federal registration requirements.
“Arizona has been more than patient waiting for Washington to secure the border,” Brewer said in a statement after the court acted. “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.”
More than 10 million adults are in the U.S. illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. At the same time, the number of people seized trying to cross the border is falling. Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol dropped from 1.19 million in fiscal year 2005 to 463,000 in fiscal 2010, according to the agency.
The statute, the first of its kind when signed into law last year, inspired the enactment of similar laws around the country. Arizona is now one of at least 10 states that check immigration status during investigations, arrests or jail bookings, according to the appeal.
“Whatever the court decides, we already know that S.B. 1070 is a wrongheaded policy,” said Andrei Cherny, the chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, in a statement. “It is unjust, divisive, makes our communities less safe and makes it harder to solve the problem of illegal immigration.”
A ruling striking down the Arizona law potentially would put more focus on the federal government’s role in stopping illegal immigration, increasing the importance of the issue in next year’s presidential campaign.
“Maybe this will prompt the federal government to intervene and give us a law that everyone can live with,” said Paloma Zuleta, communications director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes the well-being of Hispanic Americans.
The justices divided along ideological lines in May when they upheld a separate Arizona law that threatens companies with loss of their corporate charters if they hire illegal immigrants. The 5-3 ruling said a federal law governing immigrant hiring leaves room for states to impose their own penalties for non-compliance.
The court will likely hear arguments in April and, as with health care, rule around the end of June.
The case is Arizona v. United States, 11-182.
--With assistance from William McQuillen in Washington and Daivd Mildenberg in Austin, Texas. Editors: Justin Blum, Laurie Asseo
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