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Judge who ruled on Arizona law is well versed in immigration cases

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; A03

The federal judge who blocked key aspects of Arizona's new immigration law was so well regarded across the political spectrum that she was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who tapped her on the recommendation of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), one of Congress's most conservative senators.

This week, however, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton became one of the nation's most divisive figures, after halting much of Arizona's high-profile effort to identify and deport illegal immigrants.

Hate mail and threats flowed into her court offices, according to news reports. Conservative bloggers decried her "activist" leanings and accused her of falling in with the American Civil Liberties Union, a prominent challenger of the law and a favorite target of the right. And Kyl, who during Bolton's nomination hearings in 2000 lauded her expertise and fairness, did not conceal his disappointment.

"I really thought that she would uphold most of the law and allow Arizona to try to do its best to enforce the law to the extent that the federal government wasn't doing so," he said on the Fox News program "Happening Now."

Bolton is no stranger to controversy or to cases that might elicit death threats. Since beginning her career as a judge in 1989, she has taken on Mexican smugglers, civil libertarians and members of the Arizona legislature. While a Superior Court justice in Maricopa County, she handled some of the most complex and delicate cases to come before the court, a colleague said. In her decade on the federal bench, she has overseen cases that touched on border issues.

No other case, however, has thrust her into the national spotlight like her decision Wednesday to block the most contentious parts of Arizona's law, including provisions that would have required police officers to check the immigration status of people they arrest. People close to Bolton said she is a meticulous jurist who is not easily shaken by such attention.

"Put it this way: Susan has never been accused of being a coward," said retired Superior Court Judge Ken Fields, who worked alongside Bolton for a decade. "She's probably the perfect judge to have for this case. She analyzes the facts and makes a decision without bias one way or the other."

Bolton, 58, a Philadelphia native, attended college and law school in Iowa. Shortly after receiving her law degree, she joined a firm in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. She served on the state Superior Court for Maricopa County from 1989 until 2000, when she was appointed to the federal bench.

During her tenure, she has handled numerous cases related to illegal immigration. In 2001, she presided over the case of a smuggler sentenced to 16 years in prison for leading 14 illegal immigrants to their deaths in the desert. A year later, she dismissed a suit by legal U.S. residents against Border Patrol agents accused of racial profiling in a 1997 immigration raid.

In a 2000 decision that angered some politicians, she removed from the ballot a growth-control measure backed by the state legislature, ruling it unconstitutional. It had been proposed as an alternative to an environmentalist-backed measure.

Friends and colleagues say Bolton is hardworking, intelligent and exceptionally confident in the courtroom. Lawyers who have brought cases before her say she is well prepared and thorough, prone to asking her questions of witnesses as she gathers information to rule on a case.

John Randolph, who knows her from her days in private practice in Tempe in the 1970s and 1980s, said she had an "intellectual interest in the arguments" related to violence against women. In 1987, she co-authored with her husband, Frank G. Bolton, the book "Working With Violent Families: A Guide for Clinical and Legal Practitioners."

Randolph described Bolton as intellectually curious and well versed on subjects ranging from art to world affairs, which they would often talk about at length with their spouses over the dinner table, but said she has never tipped her hand on her political views.

"She was very difficult to figure out politically," he said. "I couldn't figure it out then, and I can't figure it out now."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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