Supreme Court Hands Down Split Decision on Arizona Immigration Law

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited ruling on the Obama Administration’s challenge to SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial law intended to curb illegal immigration. In a mixed ruling, the court upheld one of the law’s central provisions, while striking down three others. For the full text of the ruling click here.

The best known part of the law remains on the books. Section 2(B) is known as the “papers, please” provision because it requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they question or arrest and suspect of being in the United States illegally. The Obama administration challenged this provision on the grounds that it infringes on federal authority.  The Court, minus Justice Elena Kagan, who recused herself from the case because of her prior work as the Obama Administration’s solicitor general, voted unanimously to uphold that section of the law.  However, because it remains unclear how this section will be enforced, it’s possible the provision will be challenged again.

“The Federal Government has brought suit against a sovereign State to challenge the provision even before the law has gone into effect,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the Court.  “There is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced. At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume [the provision] will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law.”

The court split over the other three parts of the law it was considering.

Section 3 would have created a new misdemeanor punishing immigrants who failed to carry their immigration papers with them at all times.  In a 6-2 vote, the Court said this was already covered by federal law, and therefore the state government had no jurisdiction.  Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the the dissenting voices, fellow conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito sided with the majority.

Section 5(c) of  SB 1070 would have made it a crime for an undocumented immigrant to seek work in the state. The Court decided 5-3 that existing federal law punishes employers who hire undocumented workers and not the workers themselves, and that this section of Arizona’s law would interfere with that law.  Chief Justice John Roberts joined moderate Anthony Kennedy and the Court’s liberal wing including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg,  Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor in this ruling.

Finally, Section 6 would have allowed police officers to arrest immigrants without a warrant if they believed they had committed a crime that was grounds for removal from the United States, even if the suspected crime did not take place in the officer’s jurisdiction.  The federal government argued that this provision interfered with the federal system of removal.  The court agreed, voting 5-3, with Roberts and Kennedy once again joining Ginsberg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law,” wrote Justice Kennedy.

The ruling is expected to have a ripple effect in states including Alabama that have passed immigration laws mimicking Arizona’s.

Immigrant advocates immediately hailed the decision as a partial victory. Many tempered their cheers with disappointment at the upholding of Section 2(B), a provision that some say condones racial profiling. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (which Mitt Romney and President Obama addressed last week) released the following statement:

“NALEO applauds the Court’s action to prevent the state from unconstitutionally criminalizing being undocumented, seeking or engaging in work, or being deportable. NALEO is extremely concerned, however, that Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” policy was not yet determined to be unconstitutional because it is unclear how it will be implemented.”

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.


AboutJustin Mitchell
Justin Mitchell was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theater, and worked as an ESL teacher in the Czech Republic, Cambodia, and Korea. He is now a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in international journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mittinjuschell.