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Opinion

Why the Supreme Court ruling on immigration is a clear rebuke to Arizona

Both sides of the immigration debate claim victory, but the court not only accepted virtually all of the Obama administration’s arguments, it also rejected Arizona’s primary contention that local police have 'inherent' authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

By Ben Winograd / June 26, 2012

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer speaks to the media about the Supreme Court decision on the Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, June 25 in Phoenix. Op-ed contributor Ben Winograd says that 'regardless of what Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer or other supporters of the law might say, Monday’s ruling...provides a clear sign that states have little, if any, leeway to enact laws like SB 1070.'

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic/AP

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Washington

Monday’s mixed Supreme Court decision on the Arizona immigration law has allowed both sides to claim victory. But make no mistake: The court’s ruling represents a stinging rebuke for supporters of SB 1070 and other state immigration laws.

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The majority opinion not only accepted virtually all of the Obama administration’s legal arguments, it also rejected Arizona’s primary contention that local police have “inherent” authority to enforce the immigration laws. And while the court permitted one part of SB 1070 to go into effect, it effectively invited future litigants to challenge its application in court.

Thus, regardless of what Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer or other supporters of the law might say, Monday’s ruling – which was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, both Republican appointees – provides a clear sign that states have little, if any, leeway to enact laws like SB 1070. (Although the final vote was 5-3, the margin would have likely been 6-3 had Justice Elena Kagan not recused herself.)

Contrary to popular belief, the question before the justices was not whether Arizona’s law violated the Constitution, but whether it conflicted with federal law. Of the four sections under consideration, the court found three were indeed “preempted” by Congress.

One of the provisions blocked by the court, Section 3, made it a crime under state law for immigrants to fail to carry “registration” papers issued by the federal government. Another, Section 5(C), made it a crime for immigrants without employment authorization documents to seek or perform work in Arizona. A third, Section 6, gave local police authority to arrest immigrants – including those with green cards – for having previously committed an offense making them removable from the country.

While the legal rationale varied for each section, the majority struck down all three provisions upon finding them to violate federal law or otherwise disrupt the framework created by Congress. (In a partially dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said that he, too, believed that Section 3 should be overturned.)

The only provision to survive Monday’s ruling was Section 2(B), which requires Arizona police to try to determine the immigration status of people they stop or arrest if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person in custody is unlawfully present. (The provision received extensive media attention due to widespread concerns that it could invite racial profiling.)

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