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Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Arizona v. U.S.

On April 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Arizona v. U.S., which involves Arizona’s restrictive immigration enforcement law, “SB 1070.”  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the federal government in its challenge to SB 1070.

To provide a bit of background, SB 1070 was scheduled to go into effect on July 29, 2010.  On July 9, 2010, the United States filed suit in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of SB 1070 on the grounds that it is preempted by federal immigration law. 

What does “preempted” mean?  The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution states that federal law is the “supreme Law of the Land” and that states are bound to uphold it.  Generally, states are prevented (or “preempted”) from legislating: (1) in a way that is expressly prohibited to states by federal statute; (2) in an area of law where Congress intends to “occupy the field”; or (3) in a way that obstructs the purposes of Congress.

At the same time that the United States filed suit against SB 1070, it asked the district court to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect until the case could be fully litigated and the court could issue a final ruling (which would take many months or even years).  The district court agreed to temporarily prevent Arizona from enforcing four sections of SB 1070 because the court found that, as to these sections, (1) the United States was likely to make a successful case that they are preempted by federal law and (2) irreparable harm would result from enforcement of these sections in the meantime.   A ruling like this is called a “preliminary injunction.”  The injunction was then affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Here are the four relevant sections in summary:

  • Section 2(B): Police must check immigration status when they suspect that someone they have lawfully stopped is undocumented;
  • Section 6: Police may arrest someone without a warrant if they have cause to believe that they have committed a deportable offense;
  • Section 3: People who fail to complete and carry federal registration papers are guilty of a state crime; and
  • Section 5: People who ask for or accept work are guilty of a state crime if they are unauthorized.

If Arizona had not petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision at this juncture (or if the Supreme Court had declined to hear it), the case would have gone back to the district court, which eventually would have issued a final ruling on the merits of the preemption claim.   

But Arizona did not want to wait for that.  The state petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the question of whether the four blocked sections of SB 1070 are in fact preempted by federal law.  Technically, the question before the Court is whether the Ninth Circuit correctly interpreted and applied the preemption doctrine when it affirmed the preliminary injunction.

Regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court, the legal challenge to SB 1070 will continue.  Several civil rights organizations are involved in a separate, ongoing lawsuit challenging SB 1070 on constitutional grounds other than preemption.  These arguments include the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  That litigation is making its way through the federal courts now.  In fact, the civil rights organizations recently won a victory in their case when the district court agreed to temporarily block those parts of SB 1070 that restrict day labor solicitation.  For a discussion of the latter ruling, please see CLINIC’s Litigation Update from March 2012 here.

On April 27, CLINIC and USCCB held a webinar to discuss the Arizona v. U.S. case and to consider the specific concerns raised by the Justices during oral arguments.  An audio recording of the webinar as well as the PowerPoint presentation slides will be available on CLINIC’s website soon.

CLINIC will continue to update you on developments in the case.  Please feel free to contact Karen Lucas at klucas@cliniclegal.org if you have any questions.