The Supreme Court has added another hot-button issue to its docket this term, agreeing today to hear a challenge to Arizona's strict immigration law.
The case will be argued sometime this spring, and Justice Elena Kagan will take no part in the decision, presumably because she dealt with the issue in her previous job as solicitor General of the Obama administration.
Today's announcement means that by June the court will have decided three major controversial issues that could have an impact on the next election. Besides the immigration case, the court will hear a challenge to the Obama administration's health care law, as well as a dispute regarding Texas redistricting maps.
Arizona's immigration law was passed in April of 2010, and was immediately challenged by the Obama administration. The administration argued that the state law interferes with existing federal law.
"Federal law and policy do not adopt such a one-size-fits all approach to enforcement," Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli argues in court briefs. "The officials who enforce the nation's immigration laws require significant discretion in order to balance numerous goals and purposes … including law enforcement priorities, foreign-relations considerations and humanitarian concerns."
Lower courts sided with the Obama administration and blocked several key provisions of the law from going into effect.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Monday praised the Supreme Court's decision to step in.
"This case is not just about Arizona," Brewer said in a statement. "It's about every state grappling with the costs of illegal immigration. And it's about the fundamental principle of federalism, under which these states have a right to defend their people."
Brewer says that when she signed the law, she was "keenly aware" of the need to respect federal authority over immigration-related matters and that the legislation authorizes "cooperative law enforcement" and enforces sanctions that parallel federal law.
But the Obama administration says the laws are not cooperative.
"Those provisions do not represent an effort to cooperate with the federal government in enforcing federal immigration law; instead, they are designed to establish Arizona's own immigration policy," Verrilli argues.
Brewer has been outraged that the Obama administration has filed suit against Arizona and other states with similar legislation.
"Arizona has been more than patient waiting for Washington to secure the border," she said. "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."
Lawyers for the state asked the Supreme Court to step in to reverse the lower court's action.
One of the blocked provisions provides that a law enforcement officer can ask the person he has stopped, detained or arrested for his or her papers if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally. Another section makes it a state crime for someone to work or seek work without proper authorization.
Critics of the law are pleased that the high court has agreed to step in and decide the issue.
"I think the court intends to clarify any dispute about the meaning of its legal precedent regarding the ability of states to regulate immigration," says Karen Tumlin, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
"This case boils down to a question of whether Arizona can mandate that its officers interrogate individuals about their immigration status and attempt to enforce federal civil immigration law," she says.
Although deeply opposed to the law, the Obama administration had asked the Supreme Court to refrain from taking up the case at this juncture. Verrilli argued that so far only one appellate court has dealt with the law and the Supreme Court should wait until more cases from other states have had a chance to make their way through the lower courts.
Similar legislation is pending in Utah, South Carolina, Indiana, Georgia and Alabama.