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Supreme Court to hear challenge to Arizona’s immigration law

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The Supreme Court on Monday intervened in another high-profile case testing the authority of the federal government, saying it will review Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, which inspired similar state efforts across the country.

The decision adds to one of the court’s most high-profile case­loads in years.

Next month, the court will hear an emergency appeal from Texas that questions the role of federal courts in overseeing the deeply partisan issue of political re­districting. And in March, the court has scheduled 51 / 2 hours of oral arguments over the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care overhaul.

All will be decided before the court breaks for its summer recess and as the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns move into high gear.

Health care and immigration have been among the most contentious issues on the political landscape, and they sharply separate Obama from the Republicans who want his job.

The administration successfully challenged the Arizona law as an imposition on immigration powers belonging solely to federal authorities. But the court apparently disagreed with the administration’s contention that review of the lower-court decisions was not warranted at this time.

The Justice Department said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco was correct to rule that Arizona was trying to take on a federal immigration role.

The appeals court blocked four elements of the new law: making it a state crime to be in the country illegally and failing to register with the federal government; making it illegal to seek work or to be working when not authorized; requiring state and local officers to try to determine the status of someone arrested, stopped or detained if they believe the individual might be in the country unlawfully; and allowing the warrantless arrest of anyone who they have probable cause to believe might have violated laws that would make them deportable under federal law.

Arizona told the justices in asking them to accept the case that more than half of all illegal immigrants enter through the state and that “the Ninth Circuit decision suggests that there is almost nothing Arizona can do to supplement the inadequate federal efforts.”

The state told the justices that its efforts were intended to co­operate with federal laws to control illegal immigration, not to usurp the federal government’s power.

When Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed S.B. 1070 in April 2010, she described it as a way for Arizona to “solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”

In a statement Monday, Brewer commended the court for accepting the case and said she was “stunned at the audacity of the Obama administration to file suit” against Arizona and other states that passed restrictive laws.

“Arizona has been more than patient waiting for Washington to secure the border,” Brewer 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.”

But the provisions of the Arizona law blocked by the appeals court “do not represent an effort to cooperate with the federal government in enforcing federal immigration law,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.told the court in the government’s filing.

The Justice Department has filed suit to block similar laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, and the agency said it is reviewing laws in Georgia and Indiana that private groups and individuals have challenged.

Verrilli told the justices they should wait for some of those lawsuits to work their way through the courts.

In addition to taking alternative approaches to the subjects the Arizona law addresses, the other laws address different issues such as housing, contracting, education and transportation, Verrilli said.

“There’s no reason to think that reviewing this [Arizona] preliminary injunction would resolve those cases,” he argued.

He also said that the federal government has to be the lead authority on issues of “law enforcement priorities, foreign relations considerations and humanitarian concerns.”

The Arizona case will probably be heard in April. Justice Elena Kagan will not take part, presumably because she worked on the issue in her previous role as solicitor general.

That raises the prospect of a 4 to 4 tie. In such a case, the 9th Circuit’s decision blocking portions of the Arizona law would stand, but the decision would carry no national significance for the other state laws now being challenged.

Although its decision to challenge the laws has enraged some state officials and conservative members of Congress, the Obama administration also has angered some groups because of the
record-breaking pace at which immigrants here illegally are being deported.

About 1.2 million illegal immigrants have been deported in the first three years of the administration, compared with 1.57 million during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration.

The number of those entering the country illegally has fallen dramatically, but the issue has not cooled politically. Democrats and Republicans are eager to court the rapidly growing bloc of Hispanic voters, who are more likely than others to oppose the tougher restrictions, studies have shown.

The case is Arizona v. United States .

In other action, Kagan wrote for a unanimous court that a Filipino man who has been in the United States since 1974 should be able to apply for an exception to rules that say he must be deported for violating the law.

Joel Judulang, a lawful permanent resident, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and later was arrested for theft. He challenged federal rules that did not allow him to apply for an exception to his deportation order.

Kagan wrote that the Board of Immigration Appeals failed to give a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. “That is not a high bar, but it is an unwavering one,” she wrote.

The case is Judulang v. Holder .

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