WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will take up a dispute over an Arizona law that requires police to check the status of people stopped or arrested if officers suspect they are here illegally.
An undocumented immigrant prepares to board a deportation flight to Guatemala City at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on June 24. The U.S. Supreme Court may take up an immigration case.
The Obama administration had asked the high court to stay out the closely watched case at this early phase, arguing it should let lower court judges examine the constitutionality of the law first.
The justices instead have decided to review whether lower federal court judges had sufficient grounds to block enforcement of the most controversial portions of the Arizona law -- which now has equivalents in several states -- while a question about their constitutionality is pending.
At the core is the dispute is how far states can go to try to discourage people from illegally crossing the border without infringing on the immigration-related power of the federal government.
Monday's action heightens an already politically incendiary term. In November the justices said they would hear a series of challenges to the Obama-sponsored health-care law, and last Friday they decided to intervene in a Texas voting rights battle.
All these cases are likely to be decided just before the Democratic and Republican party conventions this summer for the 2012 presidential election.
The immigration and health-care cases, particularly, test important lines of power between Washington and the states. In the Arizona immigration case, the Department of Justice insists the state is treading on federal power.
Since Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the sweeping law in April 2010, several other states have adopted legislation intended to stop people from crossing the border and working here illegally. The U.S.Justice Department, as in the Arizona case, has challenged several of the laws as encroaching on federal authority and threatening civil liberties.
The Justice Department has filed challenges to laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.
In the Arizona dispute, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices that the federal government controls immigration, to the exclusion of the states, "to ensure aliens in the system are treated fairly and with appropriate respect given their individual circumstances."
He said that sometimes "humanitarian concerns" lead the federal government to decide that someone who is here illegally should not be removed.
Arizona state officials say illegal immigrants are flooding their state and it should be able to try to staunch the flow. Other parts of the law commonly known as SB 1070 would make it a state crime to live or work here without proper documentation.
At issue in the case the justices have agreed to hear is whether lower federal courts rightly blocked its enforcement while the case was pending.
A U.S. district court held that the Justice Department was likely to succeed on the merits of the case. It said the provisions for mandatory verification of federal immigration status and arrest of anyone believed to be here without proper papers could end up hurting people legally in the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed.
In urging the justices to intervene, Washington lawyer Paul Clement, representing the state of Arizona, told the justices the dispute tests "whether states that bear a disproportionate burden of the costs of illegal immigration are powerless to use their own resources to enforce" immigration law.
Clement, the U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, is also the lead lawyer in the other two big cases to be heard this term. He is representing Texas in the voting-rights case and representing Florida and 25 other states protesting the new federal health care law.
The case of Arizona v. United States is likely to be scheduled for arguments in April, with a decision by late June when the justices typically recess for the summer. Justice Elena Kagan, former U.S. solicitor general, is not participating in the Arizona immigration case.