PHOENIX — A federal judge is holding hearings on a parade of legal challenges to Arizona's immigration enforcement law, but resolving the seven cases filed so far could keep the court busy for years.
Two of the cases were set to go before U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton on Thursday.
Lawyers in separate cases filed by the federal government and by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are seeking an order to keep the law from taking effect.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Gov. Jan Brewer want Bolton to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the advocacy groups.
Bolton held a similar hearing on July 15 involving another lawsuit. She hasn't indicated whether she'll rule on any of the cases before July 29, when the law is scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. MST.
The uncertainty has made the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse the focal point for the bubbling debate over the law, even as law enforcement agencies prepare to implement it and opponents gear up for protests.
The law requires officers, while enforcing other laws, to check a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion the person is in this country illegally.
The law does not define reasonable suspicion, but police training materials say triggers can include speaking poor English, traveling in a crowded vehicle and hanging out in an area where illegal immigrants typically congregate.
The law also bans people from blocking traffic when they seek or offer day-labor services on streets and prohibits illegal immigrants from soliciting work in public places.
All but one of the seven cases challenging the law have been assigned or reassigned to Bolton. The other remains in the hands of a judge who was randomly given the case but likely will go to Bolton.
Lawsuits filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, advocacy groups and others generally argue the law is unconstitutional because immigration is a federal responsibility. Some claim the law will result in racial profiling.
Gov. Brewer's lawyers contest those claims.
Unless Bolton dismisses all the cases outright, getting a final ruling on the constitutionality of the law could easily take two years or more.
That's how long it took another judge in the same court to decide challenges to Arizona laws on voter registration and campaign finance. Appeals could take much longer.
In the meantime, Bolton is left to ride herd over proceedings in seven overlapping but distinct cases involving dozens of lawyers and hundreds of legal briefs and other filings totaling thousands of pages.
Stephen Montoya, the chief lawyer in a lawsuit filed by a Phoenix police officer and an Hispanic nonprofit group, sought a preliminary injunction against the law at the July 15 hearing. The next day, Montoya requested the lawsuit be consolidated with the case filed by the Department of Justice.
The cases are virtually identical in claiming the state statute is trumped by federal law and because both seek to block enforcement, Montoya said.
"Honestly, if the federal government had filed first, I can't imagine that we would have even filed," Montoya said. "We have a lot of respect for the federal government. We have a lot of respect for their lawsuit. Certainly they have a lot more resources than we do."
If the cases are consolidated, "after that, we will take a back seat to the federal government," he said.
A lawyer for a Tucson police officer who filed a different challenge requested on Wednesday that it be merged with the federal suit.
One possible scenario would be the consolidation of all seven legal challenges.
"Then it's like one giant lawsuit," Arizona State University law professor Robert Bartels said. "When cases are consolidated, it's as if all of the plaintiffs sued together with separate counsel. Those lawyers might eventually come to an agreement about who's going to take the lead."
But consolidation isn't likely for one major challenge, at least for now.
Lawyer Nina Perales, who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said a lawsuit filed by that group and the ACLU, goes further than the federal case by claiming racial profiling.
"It's coming from a different and maybe complementary perspective," Perales said. "We're really coming from the perspective of individual people."
Tim Hogan, executive director for the liberal-oriented Arizona Center for the Law in the Public Interest, said it can be tricky if lawyers for different clients in one consolidated case have different ideas on strategy.
Then it comes down to whether the attorneys can hash out a common approach.
"You can't control what other people are going to do. You just can't," he said.