Arizona v. United States (2012)

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The Supreme Court case which held sections 3, 5(C), and 6 of Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (S.B. 1070) were preempted by federal law, but that section 2(B) must be allowed to be construed in practice before deciding whether the provision should be enjoined. (Read the opinion here).

In 2010, Arizona enacted S.B. 1070 to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” At issue were four separate provisions of the bill: section 3 that made it a state misdemeanor to fail to comply with federal alien-registration requirements; section 5(C) that made it a state misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to look for or perform work in Arizona; section 6 that authorized officers to execute warrantless arrests where “the officer has probable cause to believe . . . [a person] has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States”; and section 2(B) that required officers in certain scenarios, when conducting a stop, detention, or arrest, to make efforts to verify the person’s immigration status with the Federal Government.

The Court begins its opinion, delivered by Justice Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, by recognizing the broad power of the Federal Government to regulate immigration. These broad powers come from the government’s constitutional grant of authority to formulate the rules of naturalization, to conduct relations with foreign nations and to govern the many areas in which trade and investments intersect with immigration. This constitutional grant of authority confers upon the Government the ability to speak with one voice on immigration policy. Because of this, the Government maintains an intricate and extensive scheme encompassing immigration proceedings, policies, and enforcement mechanisms. Under the principles of federalism and the Supremacy Clause, state designs that displace a comprehensive federal framework of regulation, or otherwise conflict with federal law, are preempted. The Court then turns to the provisions in question and applies this legal analysis of preemption to each.

The Court finds section 3 to be preempted because it creates a state misdemeanor for conduct already proscribed by federal law, thereby infringing upon the federal scheme that regulates the field of alien registration. Prior case law held that “Congress intended the federal plan for registration to be a ‘single integrated and all-embracing system.’”

Unlike section 3 which sought to complement federal law, section 5(C) created a state criminal offense non-existent in federal law. The Court here held this section to be preempted due to Congress’ enactment in 1986 of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which specifically addressed the employment of illegal aliens. The Court examined the legislative history of this Act to determine that “Congress decided it would be inappropriate to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek or engage in unauthorized employment.” Therefore, 5(C) conflicts with the regulatory scheme Congress enacted and is preempted.

The Court held section 6 to be preempted as well, as an impediment to the removal system created by Congress. The absence of federal input into the decision by an officer as to whether arrest is appropriate particularly troubled the Court. The Court found that empowering state officers with the functions of an immigration officer as S.B. 1070 did to violate the discretion of the Government built into the removal system. In sum, the general nature of state officers’ authority empowered by S.B. 1070 to make these kinds of arrests obstructed the comprehensive removal scheme put into place by the Government.

Section 2(B) was not necessarily preempted by federal law according to the Court. First, three limits were built into the provision: a valid Arizona driver’s license or similar identification creates a presumption against unlawful residency; officers “may not consider race, color or national origin . . . except to the extent permitted by the United States [and] Arizona Constitution[s]”; and this section must be implemented consistent with federal law and the requisite guarantees of civil liberties. The Court held that collaboration between state officers and federal immigration officials is encouraged by the Government’s immigration policy and so this section did not infringe upon the relevant regulatory federal scheme. In addition, because of the limitations in 2(B), the Court noted that whether the enforcement of this section would be justly carried out, and for instance, not result in lengthy detentions during the verification process, was yet to be determined. For that reason, enjoining the provision could not be justified. The Court left 2(B) to the state courts for them to construe the provision and determine whether it conflicts with federal immigration law.

Justice Scalia, concurring in part and dissenting in part, argued that states’ inherent authority to exclude persons from its territory justified the provisions at issue in this case. Running through each provision, Justice Scalia starts from this basic proposition and examines how each section supports federal immigration restrictions more effectively, rather than conflicting with them.

Justice Thomas, concurring in part and dissenting in part, agreed with Scalia that each provision was not preempted by federal law, but rather for the reason that the “ordinary meaning” of the relevant federal immigration laws did not conflict with the four provisions challenged within S.B. 1070.

Justice Alito, concurring in part and dissenting in part, agreed with the majority that section 2(B) is not preempted and that section 3 is. He disagreed on sections 5(C) and 6, arguing that Congress did not explicitly displace state authority in the realm implicated by section 5(C) and that section 6 added little to the powers Arizona officers already possess, and what little was added was consistent with federal law.

Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.