Supreme Court upholds key provision of SB 1070, strikes down the rest

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The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a key section of Arizona's controversial SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration measure, but struck down three other sections.

At issue before the court was whether four sections of the 2010 law, blocked nearly two years ago by a federal judge in Arizona, were preempted by federal law. The lower court judge was acting on a federal constitutional challenge to the Arizona law, and it was the state's appeal of the lower court's decision that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

The justices decided by a 5-3 margin that Section 2(B) of SB 1070, which empowers local police to check the immigration status of people they encounter if there is "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally, does not conflict with federal law. From the court's opinion issued this morning:

"The Court therefore properly rejects the government’s challenge, recognizing that, “[a]t this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume §2B will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law.”

Sections 3, 5(C) and 6 of the law are preempted by federal law, however, and were not upheld. As the opinion reads, "Despite the lack of any conflict between the ordinary meaning of the Arizona law and that of the federal laws at issue here, the Court holds that various provisions of the Arizona law are pre-empted because they “stan[d] as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” Here are the key sections ruled on today:

• Section 2(B), which requires state and local police officers to attempt to determine the immigration status of any person stopped under state or local law if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is unlawfully present in the United States. This was upheld, with the observation that the federal government has the last say.

• Section 3, which would make it a state crime for undocumented immigrants not to carry an alien registration document. This was struck down, with the court holding that "Section 3 simply incorporates federal registration standards."

• Section 5(C), which would make it a state crime for undocumented immigrants to apply for work, solicit work in a public place, or work within Arizona. This was not upheld.

• Section 6, which would authorize state and local police to arrest immigrants without a warrant where there is “probable cause” that the person committed an offense that would make them deportable. This was not upheld.

The Supreme Court's decision today has broad implications for states in terms of how far they can go in creating and enforcing their own immigration laws. The most immediate effect will be on states that have recently enacted anti-illegal immigration laws similar to SB 1070, among them Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana.

There have been legal challenges to these state laws as well: Alabama, South Carolina and Utah have also been sued by the federal government on preemption grounds; others have been sued by civil rights groups. In some cases, court decisions are pending the Supreme Court's opinion.

The high court made clear today that the decision doesn't preclude other challenges to SB 1070, including other lawsuits on constitutional grounds.

One thing the court did not weigh in on this particular case is the much-discussed civil rights aspect of SB 1070. Critics have pointed to the "reasonable suspicion" provision of the law as potentially encouraging racial profiling, and this has been part of other legal challenges. However, in this case, the justices only weighed whether the contested provisions of the Arizona law were preempted by federal law.

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