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What the Supreme Court's review of the SB 1070 case means

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., July 2008
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., July 2008
Photo by S.E.B./Flickr (Creative Commons)

After a federal judge in Arizona blocked portions of the state's then-new SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration law last year, among other things putting on hold a provision that would empower police to check the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vowed to fight the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it's there that the case has now wound up.

The high court announced this morning that it would review the federal government's challenge to the law, which since its partial enactment in July of last year has led to a series of copycat laws in other states - and subsequent legal challenges to each.

The Supreme Court justices won't be weighing the merits of SB 1070, but rather the merits of the lower federal court judge's decision to block parts of it from being enforced pending a constitutional challenge from the Obama administration. The federal lawsuit, filed in early July of last year as SB 1070 was set to take effect, asserts that immigration law is the domain of the federal government and that it pre-empts attempts by states to set their own immigration rules.

While the SB 1070 appeal won't likely be heard until spring, how the high court justices rule could either encourage or put a halt to the flurry of state anti-illegal immigration laws that followed. In the last year, states that include Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana have enacted their own versions of SB 1070. Alabama, South Carolina and Utah have also been sued by the federal government on pre-emption grounds; others have been sued by civil rights groups.

In some cases, lower federal court judges have issued preliminary injunctions - just as was done in Arizona - blocking some of the more controversial parts of these laws. For example, a judge in October blocked a provision of the Alabama law that required public schools to check student's immigration status, initially prompting a rash of school absences. The decision by the Supreme Could could have a bearing on these lower court decisions as well; if the partial block of the Arizona law is lifted, it could also affect the injunctions blocking portions of the other state laws as the federal pre-emption challenges and other lawsuits wind their way through the courts.

The preliminary injunctions issued have varied from state to state. For example, a September ruling by a federal judge in Birmingham temporarily blocked a provision that would bar undocumented immigrants from state universities, but still allowed police to question people they suspect of being in the country illegally. (The controversial public schools provision was blocked the following month, after the federal government appealed.) Last summer in Georgia, where civil rights groups have filed suit against the state, a federal judge temporarily blocked the provision allowing police to check for immigration status.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in favor of a previous Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, one mandating employers to use a federal program called E-Verify to check workers's immigration status and punishing those who don't comply. Many of the state laws that have followed SB 1070 have had similar employer provisions, including the new laws in Georgia and Alabama, which have since suffered from agricultural worker shortages.