Supreme Court dumps most of SB 1070

Demonstrators protest against Arizona's SB1070 anti-immigrant law as the bill was being debated in the state Legislature in 2009. The US Supreme Court struck down all but one part of the law in a ruling released Monday. (Photo courtesy RI4A via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License details below.)

Charles Scudder

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court struck down most of a controversial Arizona immigration law Monday, but upheld a section of the law requiring officers to make a “reasonable attempt … to determine the immigration status” of anyone they stop or arrest.

A man is arrested by police on May 10, 2010, for a sit-in at the railings in front of the White House in what was intended to be an act of civil disobedience in protest of the government's failure to act on immigration reform. (Photo courtesy Nevele Otseog via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License details below.).

The court struck down three provisions that conflicted with federal statutes, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in delivering the court’s opinion. The court said Arizona cannot prosecute illegal immigrants for seeking work, arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant or require people to carry documents proving they are legal residents of the U.S.

The court upheld Section 2B, because the so-called “papers, please” provision has not been tested by lower courts. In theory, the section conforms with federal law.

The decision did not rule out future challenges after the law goes into effect.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito filed opinions that concurred in part and dissented in part, while Scalia read a dissenting statement from the bench.

Scalia evoked founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as opponents of federal immigration laws through their opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Scalia argued that the autonomy of states allowed them to create immigration laws, while naturalization law stays within the realm of the federal government.

“Arizona has moved to protect its sovereignty – not in contradiction of federal law, but in complete compliance with it,” Scalia said. “If securing its territory in this fashion is not within the power of Arizona, we should cease referring to it as a sovereign state.”

President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney issued statements about the ruling.

“What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said. “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system – it’s part of the problem.”

Romney, campaigning in Arizona, said that Obama’s lack of an immigration plan led to the court’s decision.

“I believe that each state has the duty – and the right – to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law,” Romney said, “particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.”

The court also ruled unconstitutional mandatory life sentences without the possibility or parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

One of the two cases, Miller v. Alabama, involved a 14-year old boy who, after night of drinking and drug use with a friend, beat up a neighbor and set fire to his trailer. In a second case, Jackson v. Hobbs, a 14-year-old Arkansas boy took part in an armed robbery in which one of the other robbers shot and killed a store clerk.

The court said that such a mandatory sentence violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Elena Kagan delivered the court’ opinion, which says the possibility of life without parole for minors is not out of the question, but laws like the ones in Alabama, Arkansas and 27 other states are unconstitutional.

“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different,” she wrote.

The court also handed down an unsigned ruling overturning Montana’s law outlawing corporate campaign donations. The one-paragraph statement said the controversial Citizens United case from 2010 superseded state campaign finance laws.

“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the opinion said. “There can be no doubt that it does.”

The court has scheduled a session on Thursday to issue the last opinions of this term. Still undecided is the challenge to the Affordable Health Care Act and a law that bans lying about receiving military medals.

Reach reporter Charles Scudder at or 202-326-9865.  

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