The Supreme Court took another step into the political fray on Monday morning when it agreed to determine the fate of several key provisions in Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB 1070.
The case, Arizona v. United States, tests states' abilities to pass their own immigration measures in an area of the law typically reserved for the federal government.
Debates over immigration and health care have dominated the Republican primary contest and will surely play an outsized role once the Republican nominee squares off against President Obama. The justices' decision to rule this term on the constitutionality of both SB 1070 and the Affordable Care Act will place the Court at the storm center of American politics.
The United States is hoping to preserve its victories over Arizona in the lower courts, which blocked four sections of the law from coming into effect. Two of the blocked sections would make it a crime under state law for an undocumented immigrant to be present in the state, fail to register with the federal government and attempt to obtain work or to hold a job without governmental authorization. Another section requires state and local police officers to check the immigration status of anyone who has been arrested, stopped or detained that the police reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally. The fourth provision at issue allows for the warrantless arrests of individuals that police officers have probable cause to believe have committed deportable offenses.
The 9th Circuit held that each of these provisions improperly invaded the U.S. government's comprehensive immigration regulation authority under federal law.
Yet Arizona argues that these provisions supplement, rather than step on, those federal laws. In its petition to the justices, Arizona characterizes SB 1070 as directing "state law-enforcement officers to cooperate and communicate with federal officials regarding the enforcement of federal immigration law."
The Court's ruling in this case will likely impact similar immigration laws passed by Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, presumably because of her involvement as Solicitor General when the United States decided to bring suit against Arizona in 2010. Kagan's absence raises the possibility of a 4-4 deadlock among the justices, which would uphold the 9th Circuit's decision for the United States. If past is prologue, however, Kagan's recusal may not make a difference.
Last term, Kagan recused herself from another immigration case coming out of Arizona that many viewed as a trial balloon for SB 1070's legality. In a 5-3 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy gave his crucial vote to the Court's conservative wing. Kennedy wrote a majority opinion that allowed Arizona to revoke the business licenses of employers that knowingly hired undocumented immigrants, and also allowed the state to require businesses to check their employees' immigration status on the federal government's electronic verification system. The three dissenters believed that federal immigration laws pre-empted Arizona's efforts.
For both Arizona v. United States and the review of the Affordable Care Act, the Court will hear oral arguments in March or April, and hand down decisions by the end of June -- just in time to insert itself as a political football for the general election.