Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority and Justice Elana Kagan recused herself from the decision. The majority ruled that most of the challenged provisions were preempted by federal law. Those parts includes the parts of the law that criminalizes one’s presence in Arizona without citizenship documentation, criminalizes working or looking for food without legal status, and the provision that permits police to arrest people without a warrant if there’s suspicion that they’ve committed a deportable crime.
The court did not just rule Arizona could not criminalize people based on immigration status, it did so strongly. From the opinion:
Federal law makes a single sovereign responsible for maintaining a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the Nation’s borders. If §3 of the Arizona statute were valid, every State could give itself independent authority to prosecute federal registration violations, “diminish[ing] the [Federal Government]’s control over enforcement” and “detract[ing] from the ‘integrated scheme of regulation’ created by Congress.”
Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, sent a strong message that there are limits even this court has when embracing the state’s rights movement.
The only provision of the law to stand is the one permitting police to check a person’s immigration status during lawful arrest, and even this provision is on shaky ground.
Like the others, this part of the law was challenged simply as being in conflict with federal law. There was not an immediate challenge to the constitutionality of the racial profiling driving this provision. So, the fact this provision stands can’t be read as an endorsement of the policy the law puts forth– a point the majority opinion makes clear. For now, the court simply ruled that Arizona can enact a law that allows police officers to check immigration status during a lawful arrest. It could not rule on whether Arizona’s law was constitutional from an equal protection/due process standpoint because that wasn’t the challenge before it.
But the majority left open the door for future challenges to the law and gave potential future plaintiffs hope their complaints would receive a fair hearing by at least 5 of the sitting justices.
The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration. With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the Nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. 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.
This is a significant win for human rights advocates and a significant loss for the hard right in this country. The law that Mitt Romney has gone on record as a “model for the nation” was just soundly rejected by all but the most radical members of the court.
Photo from Narith5 via flickr.