But the ruling, which reinforced the federal government’s primacy in immigration policy, also vindicated the Obama administration’s decision to challenge the Arizona law almost from the moment it was passed.
The justices will rule Thursday on the constitutionality of President Obama’s most important priority before the court: the health-care law, his signature domestic achievement. It will be the final day of a term that has been dominated by questions about the power of the federal government.
The immigration decision comes as the issue has taken a central spot in the nation’s political conversation and domestic agenda, even as the numbers of illegal immigrants coming to this country have fallen. It is likely to be just one in a series of court decisions about the role states may play in combating illegal immigration; five states have adopted laws similar to Arizona’s, and others are waiting in the wings.
Obama recently ignited new controversy by announcing that many immigrants under age 30 who were brought to this country illegally by their parents would not be deported. In an unusual moment Monday, a dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia mentioned Obama’s policy as he spoke from the bench to criticize the majority’s decision.
In oral arguments on the Arizona law, the justices had seemed skeptical of the administration’s vision of the subordinate role states must play in immigration matters.
But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy spelled out states’ limited role, even as he acknowledged criticism that the failure of Congress and the executive branch to form a comprehensive immigration strategy has led to severe hardships.
“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues,” he wrote, “but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
The court threw out three such provisions in the Arizona law. It said the state cannot make it a misdemeanor for immigrants to not carry registration documents; criminalize the act of an illegal immigrant seeking employment; or authorize state officers to arrest someone on the belief that the person has committed an offense that makes him deportable.
Kennedy wrote for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, presumably because she had worked on it while serving as Obama’s solicitor general.
Scalia and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote dissents from the decision. In reading his dissent, Scalia made clear the extent of his disagreement.